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'Perry Mason' starts slow, ends strong

The HBO reboot, starring Matthew Rhys as the famed attorney, kicks into gear midway through its first season

Matthew Rhys plays the newest iteration of 'Perry Mason'
Matthew Rhys plays the newest iteration of 'Perry Mason'

Some shows hit the ground running. I don’t know a Sopranos fan who wasn’t hooked by the end of the pilot. Mad Men’s first episode had the famous “It’s toasted" pitch to Lucky Strike. Justified starts with the hero outdrawing a gangster and ends with him shooting the man who’ll be his main rival for six seasons.

Then there are the ones that take their time. A common discussion among fans of The Wire is when the show started to “kick in" for them. Halt and Catch Fire fans avoid that discussion—it’s too embarrassing (the last episode of the first season is when I first had an inkling of greatness). The Americans had a killer first episode, but soon settled into its trademark slow burn, with intricate story arcs unfolding across entire seasons.

The HBO series Perry Mason—created by Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald—which just wrapped up its first season, certainly has a delayed kick. There are eight episodes, and four of these are an origin story. Perhaps this was necessary to distinguish this Perry Mason from the memory of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels and the long-running TV show with Raymond Burr as the criminal defense lawyer. So we get a decidedly unimpressive Mason to start with—a private investigator working for a veteran Los Angeles lawyer, E.B. (John Lithgow). He’s more crumpled tissue than human being, haunted by his time in the war, broke, divorced and forced to take photographs of stars for the yellow papers to make ends meet.

Matthew Rhys, who plays Mason, is a marvellous subtle actor, but the first few episodes seem to encourage our impression of him as the saddest face on television, as the increasingly conflicted spy in The Americans, and in films like The Post and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It’s hard to see the hotshot lawyer of the books in this sad sack digging around morosely for evidence to help E.B. defend a woman accused of abducting her baby, who turns up dead in a harrowing scene at the start. Yet, as the case stretches on and the involvement of the Radiant Assembly of God, a cult-like church, becomes more evident, Mason’s spine—somewhat bent out of shape at the start—starts to straighten.

It sounds strange to hear but the show’s obvious pedigree also hampers its early episodes. The careful detailing of the seedy 1930s setting pretty much shouts prestige series. The directors are HBO MVP Tim Van Patten and Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who made the acclaimed Mustang. The music is by Terence Blanchard (his second great score of the year after Da 5 Bloods). There are war flashbacks whose main purpose is to flash the show’s $74 million budget. It feels a bit too artfully arranged, too dark-night-of-the-soul, and not enough fun.

Fortunately—and taking away nothing from Lithgow’s fusty performance—E.B. dies and the show comes alive. The fifth episode starts with his secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) discovering the body; it ends with her convincing Mason to take the bar exam, become a lawyer and take on the case. The transformation from PI to lawyer, even a fumbling one, is perhaps a bit too quick, but Rhys sells it as few actors could, retaining the hangdog look but conveying a growing sense of purpose and moral clarity. Rylance is wonderful too, her character swiftly and calmly taking charge, carrying Mason until he’s ready to walk. And there are wonderful supporting turns: Gayle Rankin as the stricken mother, Shea Whigham as Mason's dirt-digging friend, Chris Chalk as an honest beat cop and Tatiana Maslany and Lili Taylor as the mother and daughter who run the Radiant Assembly.

A scene near the start of the last episode is indicative of the confidence the show has going into its final stretch. Mason is laying into a crooked cop on the stand, in complete control, full of righteous fury. As he goes in for the kill, a lawyer who’s been helping him stands up and says, “It won’t work, Mason. He's not going to confess." It’s a weirdly stagey moment, but Mason continues. Again the man says, “It won’t work." Mason yells at him, “I’m not finished." And suddenly there's a cut to the night before, with Mason and team practising, and we realise that what we’ve been seeing is a vision of how they hope it will go. To place the Perry Mason of legend in a lying flashback is incredibly clever. And with a second season announced, it’s a promise that we’ll see the finished article sometime in the future.

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