Perry Mason has returned to television screens with a gritty HBO make-over and Matthew Rhys in the lead role. Craig Austin takes a look.
For those who prefer to consume their arts criticism in pithy unambiguous soundbites I’ll cut to the chase from the outset: Perry Mason stinks.
It may not be a line that HBO is likely to appropriate for promotional purposes, but it would be a difficult observation to challenge based on the first few pungent episodes of the most recent incarnation of American fiction’s legendary criminal defence lawyer.
While the rest of the U.S. struggles through the Great Depression, Los Angeles is booming. A city riding high on oil, the Olympic Games and a shadowy evangelical fervour that attracts punters to the perverse ‘Radiant Assembly of God’ like flies to a corpse in the desert. The perfect breeding ground for a seamy hard-boiled noir that takes Raymond Burr’s traditional small-screen image of Mason by the scruff of its starched Van Heusen collar and grinds its investigative nose into the dirt and grime of a squalid 1930s underworld.
This lavish stylised reboot is hot and humid; a night-sweat that flourishes in the shadows and gradually spreads across the sodden backs of its key players. Matthew Rhys’s lawless hangdog portrayal of the future criminal defence attorney – a ‘quarter-Welsh’ Mason no less – comes draped in a soiled veil of grime and sweat that can only come from the sidewalks and drinking dens of the big bad city.
Rhys’s only tie is stained with egg – or is it mustard? His morally ambiguous protagonist evoking an unseemly aura of three-day body odour and the yellowed armpits of frayed cotton shirts that are held together only by their stubborn understains. It comes as little surprise therefore to learn that the district morgue doubles not only as a meeting point for Mason and the more venal elements of L.A., but also as a trading floor for illegal favours and dead men’s clothes.
The belligerent sex that HBO’s Mason partakes in is suitably uncompromising too, a tequila-spiked rumble that plays out across unwashed sheets and pools of sweat; one especially frenzied scene culminating in Rhys’s demi-monde detective being literally shagged off his mattress and into the narrow cavity between bedpost and wall. An edgy romance that is later rekindled down Mexico way in a sultry homage to La Dolce Vita, an ornamental border-town fountain at nightfall standing in for the emerging dawn of the eternal city.
It would be fair to say that this Perry Mason is not one that fans of the original CBS legal drama would easily recognise, or even wish to publicly consort with; the narrative encompassing themes of race conflict, PTSD, a particularly grisly child murder and a pervading stench of civic hypocrisy brightened only by a sea of ravenous tabloid flash-bulbs. When Barbara Hale’s Della Street spoke with Burr’s Mason in the 50s/60s it was certainly not – as the excellent Julia Rylance does – with the withering provocation ‘Don’t you have some windows to go and peek in?’
It’s this ‘origin story’ element of HBO’s reboot that appears to have come under the most cynical critical scrutiny. Not least because ‘origin’ is all too frequently a byword for brand extension, a contemporary underpinning of the comic-book movie franchise but one that has increasingly spilled out into the wider world of drama. To many, ‘origin’ simply means the abduction of a body of work and the lazy replacement of its constituent blood sugar with jet-black poison, though there are a number of notable exceptions. It’s a narrative gambit that succeeds, albeit predictably, in Todd Phillips’ Joker, and in a truly sublime way with the serial desert slow-burn of the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul.
Yet it’s a device that appears to attract a growing sense of suspicion and occasional outrage, not least when the result is so jarringly contrary. Twitter followers of Sarah Phelps will be all-too aware of the attendant indignation that sought to suffocate her recent Agatha Christie adaptations in a flurry of Daily Express displeasure. For many traditionalists, a lavish title sequence and a lovely new typeface is insufficient return for the artistic desecration of their literary heroes.
For now at least Rhys’s Perry Mason is likely to succeed only in reinforcing such prejudices which seems a shame given the compellingly anticipated character arc that now requires an almost gymnastic stretch of imagination. Its wilfully amoral starting point acting as an unlikely pathway to a professional legal career in the guise of America’s most celebrated moral crusader.
Perry Mason stinks alright, and in a way that even its stylistic flourishes and the high shine of its production values can’t mask, but it’s drama well worth holding your nose for. There’s a campaigning champion for the most vulnerable people in society hidden somewhere beneath Rhys’s hard-bitten LA degenerate and I can’t wait to see how, and why, he emerges blinking from the sewer.
Perry Mason is available in the UK on Sky Atlantic.