HBO’s new ‘Perry Mason’: The case of the disadvantaged actor

Poster for the Perry Mason film ‘The Case of the Howling Dog’ released in 1934.

Many of us grew up watching our parents watch the TV show Perry Mason. The show debuted in 1957 and it probably did more to inform about courtroom proceedings than any other in that era. The new rendering of this character is truly a mystery.

When I learned HBO would unveil a new Perry Mason limited series, I decided to give it a try. One of my favorite actors—he is absolutely brilliant—Matthew Rhys would play the part of Mason.

Raymond Burr 1968
Raymond Burr defined the role of Perry Mason. (Image: NBC, 1968; public domain)

A quick glance at search results indicated a number of dinosaur media praised this new series—The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, and Time.

What does this objective, admittedly hard to please, infrequent TV viewer think of HBO’s creation?

I’d call it ‘The Case of the Disadvantaged Actor.”

Matthew Rhys who did such an astounding job in the long running series The Americans is completely disadvantaged by a nonsensical plot, drastic overwrites of the original character in the novels made popular by Erle Stanley Gardner, and a juvenile effort so  desperate to be noir it comes off as a parody of the goal it is seeking.

I made it through one episode and called it quits.

Like it or not, the TV show Perry Mason defined Gardner’s iconic character permanently, for at least two generations. Maybe someone completely unfamiliar with that show can buy the HBO version. The time period is fine, in the 1930s. After all one of the first Perry Mason productions came out in 1934 with the release of the film The Case of the Howling Dog. Warren William starred in that film; so did Mary Astor.

If you don’t recognize either of those names, consider the fleeting nature of fame because William and Astor were top stars of their day.

It’s almost impossible for me to do a just review of the new HBO series—that’s how big a turnoff it was for me. From the ribald sex scene that was anything but erotic to the premise of Mason being a holdout on selling the family farm to a horrific crime involving a child, none of this is Masonesque (to coin a word).

If the writers, producers, and directors wanted to make a contemporary noir detective series, they should’ve left Perry Mason out of it. This series is what would happen if you merged Silence of the Lambs with The Hangover.

In the popular TV crime drama, I now see Burr’s Mason as a figure for justice, as a means of the often voiceless being able to speak. As numerous pundits have pointed out, the TV series of the 1950s gave few details about Perry Mason’s private life. The emphasis there was on the stories of each character initially wronged by the justice system and redeemed by Mason’s legal skills. Yes, Mason loved the underdog, but no, he wasn’t a playboy type or anywhere near promiscuous.

Raymond Burr made the Mason role his permanently, and there is no way to reconfigure it with the total mess the series creators handed Matthew Rhys. I can’t imagine the real Perry Mason, clothed in dress shirt, slacks, and stained tie, watering a cow. Besides all that, if you are going to feature a sex scene with your leading man, don’t make us feel like we’re watching a train wreck—at least give it a sliver of real erotica as Rhys sometimes demonstrated in steamy scenes in The Americans.

The only noir in this new HBO series is done as sensationalism, not as art.

Rhys was the only thing I could watch in that miserable first episode. Why the series creators would disadvantage such a fine actor is beyond me.

On a scale of 1-5 stars, I’d give HBO’s concoction a minus 5. As for the praises conferred by dinosaur media, I can say it’s not the first time blue chip media didn’t make sense, and I am certain it won’t be the last.

~~Featured Photograph: Poster for the 1934 Perry Mason film The Case of the Howling Dog. Vitagraph; US Library of Congress.

(Kay B. Day/June 29, 2020)

 

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