Perry Mason is a character we've seen before. So how can you make him feel new?
When I heard there was a Perry Mason show coming to HBO I was not excited. Originally set to star Robert Downey Jr, I assumed this would be a lot like The Judge or Ally McBeal. I figured it would be a lawyer show with some comedy that became more of a courtroom procedural.
I am an idiot and I do not deserve the gift that is Perry Mason.
The show, which stars Matthew Rhys, is a taunt and diabolical thriller. One part noir, one part character study. In it, the titular character is not a lawyer, but a disgraced investigator with some of the worst luck in the world.
He's a glutton for punishment.
A guy who doesn't mind getting his ass kicked, losing friends, and only seems to derive joy to making love to a beautiful woman he assumes he doesn't deserve.
The show is not only unrelenting in its depiction of greed, religion, racism, and angst...but also gentle and caring when it needs to be. Pushing huge emotional arcs that deliver incredible episode endings that leave you feverishly wanting more.
Let's dive in.
*There will be mild spoilers for the new Perry Mason TV show*
Perry Mason: A Timeless Character
The character of Perry Mason comes from pulpy novels of the 1930s. Written by Erle Stanley Gardner, Mason was a lawyer with a knack for getting his suspects off the hook. In the first novel (The Case of the Velvet Claws, 1933), Mason describes himself:
"You'll find that I'm a lawyer who has specialized in trial work, and in a lot of criminal work...I'm a specialist on getting people out of trouble. They come to me when they're in all sorts of trouble, and I work them out ... If you look me up through some family lawyer or some corporation lawyer, he'll probably tell you that I'm a shyster. If you look me up through some chap in the District Attorney's office, he'll tell you that I'm a dangerous antagonist but he doesn't know very much about me."
That sentiment carried into the original Perry Mason TV show, which ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966 and starred Raymond Burr. The character was so beloved, that he's gone through revamps and a second television series, The New Perry Mason starring Monte Markham, from 1973 to 1974; and 30 Perry Mason television films ran from 1985 to 1995, with Burr reprising the role of Mason in 26 of them prior to his death in 1993.
That's a wild ride.
In all those iterations, he was a lawyer who goes the extra mile. So what makes the new show feel so fresh?
Perry Mason's best traits...
When you're working to adapt something, even a show we have already seen, the strategy behind every choice should be to take the best parts and leave the rest. And that's what this reiteration of a classic does.
When we begin our story, we're not laden with the lawyer and court case. We are just in a dark place. There has been a kidnapping gone wrong, a money exchange no one can get right, and a baby that has died.
The setup here takes us on a much different path.
What makes a guy want to become Perry Mason?
This kind of question is how you make a tired concept fresh. What kind of jam would you have to be in to then want to help other people out of theirs? If you show rock bottom, you'll show a character who will stop at nothing to keep his clients from ever knowing pain as intimately as he does.
This kind of launchpad is daring and deepens everything that comes after.
The other way the story feels fresh is just broadening the world. We have a cast of characters you'd usually see in these kinds of stories, lawyers and cops, but we also have an angelic nun who is in a battle with the dominant religious leaders of the time.
We meet immigrants and farmers crucial to the investigation.
And there's also a Hollywood element that seems to back up that everything we see may not actually be real. Just manufactured stories to get us to buy into the red herrings.
Perry Mason's visuals
Supporting these narrative changes is a stunning array of cinematography. We have sweeping tracking shots, the bursts of closeup shots for clues, terrifying pans to dead bodies, and a cinematic touch that makes this show feel bigger than the screen you're watching.
While HBO hasn't released any official clips, I wanted to add the trailer and other videos to show how expansive this show is.
There's a scene with indoor snow at a Hollywood event in the pilot that contains one of the most beautiful 360 shots I think I've ever seen in any production.
These traits were not in any of the original series or movies, so they also help set it apart from standard fare.
Are you enjoying Perry Mason?
Let us know in the comments.
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