Thrumming in the background of HBO’s many triumphs in the past five years has been the cabler’s desire to continue the particular, pitch-dark success of “True Detective.” First came two more seasons of the Nic Pizzolatto anthology, ones that with varying degrees of artistic achievement both managed to continue that show’s general vibe of anguished toil, its sense that cracking a case does little to heal the broken soul of the world. Previously this year came “The Outsider,” an adaptation of a Stephen King crime novel that continued in the feel-bad vibe; now, HBO’s quest for noir returns to the source.
With “Perry Mason,” HBO repurposes the character best known from the Raymond Burr-led legal drama of the 1950s and 1960s, depicting him both before his legal career and — crucially — before the predecessor series, an early TV procedural, indicated that every move Mason made was building towards a win. As played by Matthew Rhys of “The Americans,” this 1930s Mason is an investigator for an attorney played by John Lithgow. He’s an effective louse with limited further ambition, skulking around private homes and drinking off-hours to sustain a fragile equilibrium. That balance is threatened both by memories of the Great War and by a uniquely disturbing case involving a gruesomely killed baby (whose visage, with its eyes sewn open, is lingered over gratuitously).
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Both parents (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin) experience their time in the glare of doubt, and public interest in the case is inflamed by an Aimee Semple McPherson-esque charismatic preacher (Tatiana Maslany, with her mother played by Lili Taylor) as well as by the seemingly endless appetite of the police to bring their public, and even Black officers within their force (as depicted by an exemplary Chris Chalk) to heel. In this way, at least, “Perry Mason” feels ahead of its time. Elsewhere, though, many of the subplots can feel wheel-spinning — Maslany is so alive in her scenes that it can be easy to lose oneself in their endless whirl, forgetting that not that much is happening in episodes exceeding an hour of length.
Too much of this show, a punishing eight installments, feels like yet another iteration of what we’ve seen already, elsewhere and often superior. Rhys, so gifted at allowing sentiment and vulnerability to shine through on “The Americans,” here feels inhibited by the tautness of the social constraints around Mason, which are drawn painstakingly but not especially interestingly. The show combines a setting we’ve seen before (“Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,” currently airing, takes place in the same milieu, down to the McPherson-aping subplot). Its angle of approach is ganked from two decades’ worth of prestige TV, with a stern and broken man using work as a way of beating down demons. The show is beautiful to look at (when it’s not purposefully ugly) and features great work by Rhys, Chalk, Maslany and Taylor, Rankin, Lithgow, and Juliet Rylance (as do-it-all legal assistant Della Street), and yet gives us little reason to look more deeply. Why revive a title like this only to do with it what’s been done, over the now-tapped-out prestige-TV antihero era, so many times before?
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