Often times here on Ghosts of the Stratosphere, you can find me reviewing movies and TV shows from decades and decades ago. It’s a byproduct of the strange feeling I’ve had for a long time that I would have better off being born in some other time, like the 1930s, given my fascination with the culture. Of course, then I realize that I would have had to live through the Great Depression, Polio, and World War II, which used to terrify me until 2020 hit. Now, compared to some of the stuff we’ve had to deal with thus far this year as a nation, I think maybe I could cut it after all.
Anyways, as a result of that fascination, it even impacts the types of more modern shows I decide to watch, as any period type piece set in that era immediately peaks my attention. Where it was Boardwalk Empire, Agent Carter, or Tales of the Gold Monkey I gave all of these shows a decent shot over the years to hold my interest for an hour at a time. No small feat mind you given what I’ve said on the podcast about my affinity to cartoons because they are 23 minutes and out. Trust me, when it comes to TV shows, I’m am the living definition of “short attention span”. So when I starting seeing previews for this show that looks like a cross between Chinatown and The Sopranos, I can say that HBO definitely had that attention.
This was despite the fact that the name Perry Mason was already very well known to me. It was one of those shows that my Dad loved what with Raymond Burr’s portrayal of the unflappable super defense attorney that never seemed to lose a case despite the odds. It was a show I can remember being on in the background especially some late Sunday nights when I couldn’t sleep and crawled into bed with my Mom and Dad. Those Perry Mason Sunday night movie specials with Burr in that white beard were indelibly etched in my memory, albeit not in a super great way. Again, to me Perry Mason was something “grown ups” watched, even though nowadays I am the very definition of that.
But they hooked me in that first episode with the slick film noir cinematography and some truly fascinating character performances, so here I am, taking a break from watching more Transformers: War on Cybertron to give a full review of the first season that just wrapped up this past weekend.
Did the series deliver on its promise of a interesting re-imaging of the classic lawyer drama set among the trappings of the Great Depression, or was it ultimately as dis-interesting to me as the original show was some 35 years ago? Let’s read on, shall we?
The notion of redoing the Perry Mason mythology in the 1930s is actually not too far off the original source material. Originally created in 1933 by Erle Stanley Gardner for the novel “The Case of Velvet Claws”, Mr. Mason’s roots as a fictional icon does come from the same place as many other famous crime fighters such as the Shadow and the Spider, in that he a product of the “pulp” mentality.
Not to say that the Perry Mason novels were actually circulated in pulp magazines. Most of some 80 odd books written about the character between the early 30s and late 60s, were first featured in the famous publication, The Saturday Evening Post, which was considered a bit more respectable than the dime store novels that shared the same space as the lowly comic book. Still though with somewhat formulaic plots, a early focus on somewhat legally dubious actions taken by Mason to win cases, and a penchant to sensationalize crime in a highly romanticized way, one could argue that novels are really more in line with the crime comic books of the day rather than high literature like Hemingway
Regardless, the books were highly successful and spawned not only the famous TV show of the 60s, but that TV show was only one of several adaptions that saw the light of day including 6 feature films throughout the 1930s and a equally popular radio show. So, it’s no surprise that eventually someone in Hollywood would want to revisit this famous fictional character and try their hand with a new take on the abundant amount of source material available.
As such, in 2016, HBO started working with originally Nic Pizzolatto of their hit TV series True Detective and Iron Man superstar, Robert Downey Jr., to come up with a new adaptation which would star good ol’ RDJ.
By 2017, Mr. Pizzolatto had dropped out and the series was picked up by Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald of Friday Night Lights fame.
Then by 2019, RDJ had to step down as the actor to play the new Perry Mason due to scheduling conflicts, which resulted in the casting instead of Matthew Rhys of The Americans and most recently the Tom Hanks film about Mr. Rogers.
RDJ continued on as executive producer however, and soon the cast was rounded out by folks like John Lithgow, Robert Patrick, Stephen Root, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, and Shea Whigham (who I knew very well from this role on Boardwalk Empire).
In fact, speaking of Boardwalk Empire, if this show reminds you at all of that other period crime piece it’s because Tim Van Patten directed Perry Mason, and with it brought that same hard-boiled intensity that has been the hallmark of his TV work as far back as The Sopranos and The Wire.
This opening season which really covers Perry’s metamorphosis from struggling morally questionable private detective to the champion of the oppressed defense attorney we all know ran for 8 episodes, and has already been green lit by HBO for a second season.
Without giving too much away, the main plot involves the grandchild of a pretty wealthy church backer who is murdered when a kidnapping scheme goes south. The Los Angeles DA wants to pin the crime on the child’s somewhat adulterous mother as a way of scoring quick political points, but as Perry continues to uncover more and more about the tangled web leading up to the kid’s kidnapping, things aren’t as clean cut as anyone could even possibly imagine.
Initial Thoughts and Reflections:
Well…this show definitely has left me with a bag full of contradicting feelings, so I think it’s best I try to explain in a series of Pro/Con statements.
Pro #1: The Atmosphere is Picture Perfect.
I cannot deny that everything from the cinematography, to the set and location selection, to the clothes, to the props, it’s all done with a single purpose in mind. This show wants to be Film Noir. It lives and breathes it. It oozes that gritty, morally shaded intensity that you demand from solid private detective stories of this era. Everything is hidden in shadow even when it’s in the brightest light.
It’s sexy and violent and filled with the dangers of a long forgotten time that seems more brutal even though in all honesty many of the questionable actions taken by it’s players could very well happen today as well. If you are fan of this genre whether it be from a Raymond Chandler novel or a Humphrey Bogart/Warner Brothers classic, Perry Mason delivers same style goods in spades.
Con #1: The Story is a Mess.
Yeah, this is a massive problem with the entire “mystery” genre in that in order to tell a good one, you really have to have that stuff scripted to the letter. Because more than any other genre, mysteries where you actively engage the audience in helping put together the clues is where plot holes can really become inescapable chasms in terms of suspension of disbelief. And Perry Mason doesn’t have plot holes, it has plot chasms.
Sincerely, for everything that they did right with the atmosphere and directing, they seemed to mess up with the script. It was like at times they just dumped every Film Noir cliche from crooked cops to shifty power broker millionaires to feisty femme fatales refusing to “play by the rules” in a blender, hit puree, and served whatever came out…lumps and all.
And the worst thing about it is that they only had 8 episodes to fill. It wasn’t like a Netflix 13 episode show where you get a bunch of filler episodes to meet the season quota and as a result you have to forgiving with side plots that go nowhere. This should have been a tightly wound piece of fiction with barely a crack showing.
Instead, it takes until about episode 5 for the show to decide where it wants to go with Perry Mason finally becoming the defense attorney and setting into a traditional court room drama. Before that, it’s a slow slog of Film Noir tropes dragged out one by one to see if any of them will stick.
Pro #2: The Acting is Top Notch.
Sure, it would have been nice for RDJ to be in this show, but I feel as if this show still has terrific acting from top to bottom. That of course starts with Matthew Rhys solid interpretation of the world weary beaten down crusader, Perry Mason.
A man of ethics and honor yet cloaked in a robe of ambiguity, he’s the perfect hero for a Film Noir story given he provides the steadfast moral compass despite being constantly surrounded by the very darkness that has partially consumed him. He’s drunken, slobbenly, and cantankerous, but possessing of a rare intelligence that makes folks both fear and respect him.
From there you got John Lithgow as his sublimely tragic mentor E.B. who provides us with a character I can only equate to the Film Noir version of Obi Wan Kenobi in terms of someone who makes the necessary sacrifice to keep the plot churning.
There’s the devilish slimy DA played by Stephen Root, who holds back the soul of complete maniac behind the veneer of the perfect politician.
Juliet Rylance and Chris Chalk deliver the goods as the torch bearers of the long tradition of Perry Mason supporting team in Della Street and Paul Drake.
And finally of particular note is Shea Whigham’s performance as Pete Strickland, who really does have some dynamite chemistry with Matthew Rhys. I sincerely wished the series was just about those two as private detective partners at times as the screen lit up every time they started jawing at each other like an old married couple.
Con #2: Again that Story is a Complete and Utter Mess!!
Yeah, I’d throw my hands up too, Stephen Root! Sincerely, it baffles me how terribly this entire story just meanders around. Like not to give away the actual mystery or spoil the plot too much, but the base story is actually somewhat decent. The web of intrigue and whodunit around the murder of the Dodson baby is a decent enough Macguffin to keep the old Film Noir train on the right tracks in theory, but it’s horribly mismanaged.
Plot points are just tossed around willy nilly, tension is wasted, and for every great scene such as the legal sparring between John Lithgow and Stephen Root we are given a “who cares” moment like all the wasted time focusing on Perry Mason’s love affair with the pilot Lupe Gibbs which never goes anywhere of importance.
I feel like all great Film Noir mysteries are built on the principle of “Chekov’s Gun” where you don’t waste time with things not integral to the plot in some way. If you show a gun, then it better be fired at some point. Otherwise, don’t bother to show it! The entire subplot with Sister Alice and the Resurrection movement or whatever is like the “anti Chekov’s gun”.
Again I’m not going to give away the ending, but it’s not even a decent red herring. It’s more like a pet project of the script writers, something that just takes up time and doesn’t really add any value other than “fleshing out” the church, which could have been done in a much less intrusive way.
Final Grade: C+
Again, I really wanted to love this series. As a fan of Film Noir in general, I wanted this so badly to be another great example in the long line of movies I love like The Big Sleep, Chinatown, Sunset Boulevard, LA Confidential and others. But for every moment of genius like having long time Perry Mason foe, Hamilton Burger, be the one that helps Mason pass the bar exam, there are groan worthy moments where the story cheats for the sake of getting the narrative back on track (aka Strickland quitting randomly so that Paul Drake can take over).
It’s so very uneven that it becomes frustrating at times, because you know this series has the capability to be something better than all this. It’s got great actors, great cinematography, and a decent enough plot under all this unnecessary window dressing. However, the biggest mystery for me of Perry Mason is how all that still doesn’t add up to being a grade “A” series like I thought it would be. Perhaps now that they got a lot of the backstory cleared up and the characters are in their proper places, season two can be more streamlined and focused.
Of course, I still probably won’t tune in for a season two anyways given the ridiculous marketing schemes that HBO and their parent companies are cooking up to make things difficult for anyone to actually watch one of their shows. This may be off topic compared to the rest of this review, but I feel it’s important to close on my thoughts on this.
I first thought it was simply confusing when HBO Max hit and I had a hard time figuring out which service what shows were on whether that be HBO, HBO GO, HBO Max, DC Streaming Service etc.
But then the reality of the fact that HBO was pulling their services off of streaming devices like the Roku on July 31st which has served as my “cable” box since cutting the cord several years ago. Now, I can’t even watch HBO Max on my TV lest I hook up my laptop to the TV in some sort of unnatural chunky Macguyer-esque set up.
Okay, it’s not really that bad, but it’s still the principle of the thing that I have an HBO subscription so I should be able to watch the service on any device I want. In fact, having to watch the final two episodes of Perry Mason on my computer actually was in some ways the death nail for me, a signal that although I was really looking forward to watching Doom Patrol Season 2 or possible more Perry Mason, it’s not worth keeping my subscription to a company that doesn’t have my interests at heart as a consumer. Sure that might be small potatoes for them, but I’m going on record saying that until they work this whole streaming mess out, they have lost a customer.
And with that, I yield the floor. Like Perry Mason, I’d like to think that I just stood up for what’s right, and this HBO Max mess is just not right.