Sunday, September 20, 2020

September Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: HBO’s PERRY MASON

Raymond Burr’s burly, dignified Perry Mason, (on TV: 1957-66, 80-90’s), is a far cry from Matthew Rhys’ (The Americans) down-‘n-out, hang-dog version, set in 1930 noirish LA (that ‘has disgraced itself as a Gomorrah where truth is bought and sold like the head of...a-rutabaga’--per E.B. Jonathan, Perry’s mentor). This was written as a prequel to the Mason of courtroom lawyer Erle Stanley Gardner’s over 80 Perry Mason novels penned 1933 on. Oddly it offers a thankless distortion, a morose and self-defeating private investigator Perry. Other changes worked. Instead of a case per episode, the entire series is about a baby’s kidnap and murder (plus some delicious side-shows).The dirty cops and officials that look the other way are pitted against a 99%’er, the baby’s mother, charged with the murder. Below, little Charlie Dodson’s eyes are sewn open to persuade his parents that their baby is fine before they let go their suitcase of $100k.

This new Mason reminded me for a second of Lt. Columbo, police detective, who trademarked a rumpled coat, run-down roadster, and the phrase ‘just one more thing’ off and on from 1968-2003 (now on Peacock and Amazon Prime), pestering his suspect (a narcissistic biz mogul, movie star, etc.), a 1%-er, living in what my mother would call a Bronx Renaissance or Hollywood Baroque style penthouse/mansion — with annoying questions until the frumpy detective could pounce — no police-forcing needed. Wily Columbo (below) with that smart brain was more in keeping with the old Perry Mason. 

No — the 2020 version of pre-courtroom maestro Mason lacks Columbo’s kindliness and in fact can’t get out of his own way, needs therapy for his PTSD. Haunted by the trenches of WWI, he’s losing his family dairy farm, now a shabby house and two scrawny cows surrounded by a small airfield. He shops for neckties at the city morgue (like Columbo, his own is stained with tomato — or is it mustard?), where the coroner says he’s got a stabbing victim with a three-piece suit if that would suit. 

Although fans of Raymond Burr's Mason are taunted by this new back-story, other pointed departures from the old show work better. Hamilton Berger, his former courtroom opposition, is now a (gay) colleague/advisor to Perry as he argues his first case; Berger insists that criminals never confess on the stand—oh no —confessions were signature moments in the old tv series. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) is not a PI but a young black policeman, a good person, trying to do an honest job while being manipulated by crooked white cops who have seniority he can’t aspire to: an excellent 2020 update. (Below, the past -- William Hopper, left -- and present Paul Drake). 

In a further inversion of the gay facts, actor Raymond Burr was in the closet, while 2020 Mason’s secretary, Della Street, (Juliet Rylance, daughter of Mark), is a gay woman whose girlfriend is around and about. And class-act Della is a quietly determined example of a woman forging ahead in a man’s world — marvelous. 

Altogether this mystery series is fun, its satire and irony stirring the pot of 2020’s inequality mess. Check out Perry’s PI sidekick Strickland (Shea Whigham), master of worthy asides (below). 

Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) charms as the guiding angel of the Radiant Assembly of God even if you hate the holy roller thing. She and her devoted, abusive mother, Birdy (Lili Taylor), earnestly stage their own flamboyant sideshows while board members rob church coffers. (Below Sister Alice, left, with the period’s real radio evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson.) 

Perry’s mentor, EB Jonathan, John Lithgow, is irresistable no matter what he does (below). And Stephen Root is the perfect, sneering, leering district attorney.  

But I remain stumped at the anti-heroic Perry drawn for this reboot. Creators thumbed their noses at (now old-to-very old) TV Mason fans, rather than building a character that plausibly merges new and old. True it’s is a harder problem to solve — requiring less egoism, less exploitation of a durable icon and its fans.

Perry is already on the road to civility by the time he begins to lawyer the case late in the series, but the enterprise is off-key because of this unlikely origin story for sharp-witted Mason.

It’s not a bad story, it’s just a different character’s story. Rhys, a lovely Welsh actor, makes you care about the dour, blank-eyed, slovenly fellow who shouts at people, but he belongs in a series not called Perry Mason. On the plus side, it’s a splendid, artistic production, with similarities to the graphic Boardwalk Empire of HBO rather than the Perry Mason template for Law & Order and many current legal procedurals. Here is on offer every inch of 1930’s LA topsy-turvied by the depression and the evolution of silent film into talking pictures. 

Below is the ‘Angel’s Flight’ cable car ride where the crooks display the Dodson baby through the windows. (Angel’s Flight also appeared in a 1966 episode of the old Perry Mason.)

LA is a star here, a glowy, steamy mecca — 30’s crowds of fedora-topped gentlemen cascading down courthouse steps, boxy grumbling autos, ecstatic swooning parishioners, dusty roads, mountains, and a mournful trumpet — fitting replacement for a jangly series theme. What both Perry’s have in common is a desire to see more justice in the world, to do the right thing, i.e.: where bad cops are punished by the legal system rather than knocked off by each other. The series, overall a fine ride, especially the tension-filled second half, has been renewed. Next time, please, integrate more confident Perry into the whole to put hang-dog Perry in the rear-view mirror.

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