What’s in a name? It’s a valid question when it comes to Perry Mason, whose evergreen popularity as a fictional character has seen him gather a huge fan base over the years, which has provided producers with a lucrative slice of intellectual property for some time. But how many actual Mason fans tuned in last week to watch HBO/Sky Atlantic’s new reboot/prequel, as opposed to the channels’ core regular audiences, is up for debate. Certainly, the show premiered with the best overall ratings for a debut episode on the network in the US, grabbing 1.8 million viewers – just a touch over their other popular recent offerings Watchmen and The Outsider. But was it really Mason?
In name yes, but content no – and there’s a problem there in (as our own readers correctly pointed out), as to why the show-runners even called it Perry Mason in the first place, if it shares nothing with it’s source material. It’s a fair point to make – but also a shame for the show – as there is fantastic television to be seen here, that has perhaps needlessly burdened itself with the expectations of it’s titular heritage and will subsequently turn off a great swathe of people who initially tuned in anticipating something more familiar. It might be that it all comes good in the telling of the tale as Mason crawls out of the gutter and into the courts, but on the evidence of the second episode in this “limited series”, that won’t be happening anytime soon.
Indeed, we catch up with Mason actually in the gutter after the beat-down he suffered at the hands of the movie studio’s goons on New Years Eve. His mind drifts back to his service in the trenches of the First World War, and a large part of this episode is dedicated to untangling that particularly dark strand of his past. Needless to say, Mason’s record is a morally ambiguous one, discharged from the Army with a “blue ticket” usually reserved for homosexual conduct, but really here used as a humiliation for him having the goodwill to execute his fellow soldiers as they begged for release, dying in agony on the battlefield. So a man judged for the considerable strength of his character, but equally punished for it – and subsequently, tormented by it.
We also got to spend a little more time in the company of Sister Alice and the Radiant Assembly of God this episode, with the connections between her and the Baggerlys becoming a little more apparent. Alice calls Herman Baggerly’s wife ‘mother’, but is that a genetic connection or spiritual? Certainly, Herman’s money and stature lend Alice’s church a gloss of respectability, a small-scale evangelical inter-racial organisation (presumably rare at the time). Alice is prone to the fire and brimstone style of sermon, and it’s clear her considerable charisma can entrance a room – but her back story seems a little hazy here, and got my noir senses tingling for the signs of perhaps a grifter on another long con. She meets with the Dodsons to lend her support, but seems particularly taken with Emily over Matthew – something immediately compounded when Detectives Holcomb and Ennis arrive to haul him in for an interrogation, overseen by the wholly obnoxious District Attorney Maynard Barnes (played with glee by Stephen Root, last seen in the excellent Barry).
Barnes and the police are quite happy to fit up Matthew for the kidnapping and murder, especially as they hold over him a secret that even his own solicitor didn’t know – Matthew is Herman’s illegitimate son, and that’s cause enough for them to intimate he tried to blackmail his own father. Dodson is dragged through the press pack for a quick jury by public opinion before stepping foot in court – but Mason isn’t so sure of his supposed guilt. In fact, it’s Emily that is the one acting more strangely – feverishly calling the same number without answer. A little Mason magic finds the address to the line she was calling – and one quick burglary later, the discovery of one George Gannon – minus most of his face from a shotgun blast in a supposed suicide. Gannon also just happens to be the last kidnapper who escaped Ennis’s clutches the previous week, but the neatly-arranged scene indicates he eventually caught up with him. A convenient discovery of some love letters puts Emily and Gannon together in an illicit affair, a cache that Mason’s employer E.B is keen to sit on as it’s illegally-gained evidence.
There’s a developing side-story this week which pivots into this, in the work of Officer Paul Drake (the ever-excellent Chris Chalk, who Gotham fans will recall as Lucius Fox) – whose skin colour sees him racially abused by his fellow officers and ostracised by the communities he strives to protect. His predicament brought to my mind the outstanding novel Darktown by Thomas Mullen, which fictionalises the life of the first black police officers in America – not just in his uncomfortable juxtaposition between two worlds, but also his ability to police them in a way his white counterparts cannot. In this case, it’s a panicked landlord that enlists his help to a foul-smelling tenement room, where he discovers our other deceased kidnappers (courtesy of Ennis) – and through some good old-fashion detective work – the top plate of George Gannon’s dentures (evidence which will undoubtedly become more relevant in weeks to come).
Holcomb and Ennis pressurize Drake to suppress certain aspects of his report, whilst also taking the credit for his discoveries. We know Ennis is up to his neck in this caper, but quite where Holcomb sits in the mix is a bit of a mystery still – as to the same with Sister Alice, who’s off-menu but barn-storming sermon at Charlie Dodson’s funeral seems to help seal the case for the police around Matthew’s guilt much to her patrons alarm – only to be caught out of step with the law, when the police arrest Emily outside the church before she can bury her own child. Barnes and E.B had secretly worked together to flip the case upside down, using the love letters as intent, to free Matthew and incarcerate Emily. Mason, as is the case a lot in this show, was wholly in the dark.
It was another episode light on plot but high on style, but when a show looks this good it’s hard to complain. There’s a bubbling of larger conspiracies at work here, that echo those of the best noir tales, but it’s certainly in no hurry to reach its conclusion yet. Certainly, Mason spent most of the episode drifting between characters holding onto a piece of thread, both literally and metaphorically, pulling the fibres out of this mystery, one by one. It will be intriguing to see where he takes us next.
Perry Mason is currently showing on Sky Atlantic/Now TV
READ MORE: OUR EPISODE ONE REVIEW
7 thoughts on “REVIEW: Perry Mason (S1 E2/8)”
The name works against it in other ways. I tried to get my brother to watch it, but he said he has no interest in Perry Mason. I explained that it isn’t Perry Mason, but he said he had no interest in courtroom dramas. I said it wasn’t but by then he was gone.
I’ve continued watching it, and keep reminding myself it is about a character who just happens to share the name. I’m enjoying it so far. I don’t have first hand experience, but based on movies, documentaries, newsreels, book, and radio broadcasts (and my dad, who was of age at the time), aside from the costumes it doesn’t really feel like the 1930s, I’d say maybe the 50s. I’ll stick with it for now and see where it goes, but it looks like none of the side characters resemble their literary namesakes in any way either.
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Agreed the name cuts both ways. Likewise your point on the feel being more 50s to 30s is right, especially in some of the prevailing attitudes and mannerisms.
Its time to STOP the cannibalization of established authors’ work by people who are too lazy or untalented to write their own stuff. Gardner’s iconic character, Christie’s stories, Larsson’s trilogy — all turned over to talentless hacks who just destroy the legacy.
Write your own original material for god’s sake. It will either sink or swim depending on how good it is.