Saturday, June 29, 2024

A Podcast Interview Reignited a Desire to Revisit HBO's Perry Mason


Scott D. Parker

(I listened to a podcast interview with Michael Begler, the showrunner for season 2 of the reimagined "Perry Mason" TV show. I really liked how he described coming to the project, what excited him, and his vision for a season three that will never happen. Give it a listen here

Naturally this put me in a Perry Mason mood and I think I'll be revisiting this excellent series. Here's my review of the second season.)

The second season of Perry Mason played more or less like how the original series television show used to: introduce some characters you don’t know, witness a crime (but conceal the culprit), and bring in our main characters. There will be a courtroom scene and there will be a confession of the real culprit on the stand in front of…

Okay, so the analogy only goes so far, and that’s why I am really enjoying HBO’s revamping of Perry Mason. I say revamping because it many ways, it’s not an update, but a throwback. The TV show was broadcast in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the stories were all contemporary. The original books started in 1933 and went all the way up to 1973. As far as I can suspect, author Erle Stanley Gardner kept Mason up to date with the times.

The HBO show is set in 1933 and serves as Mason’s origin to be attorney and man we know him to be. What makes this show special is that the creators do not attempt to press all the existing characters into the existing boxes we all know. Mason is a divorced dad, Della Street is studying to be a lawyer (and not just Mason’s secretary) and is a closeted homosexual. Ditto for district attorney Hamilton Berger, character traits that are explored and exploited. Private investigator Paul Drake is African-American so race comes to the fore often. 

When I think of this modern Perry Mason, I think about the Sherlock Holmes TV show Elementary. Unlike BBC’s Sherlock—which merely updated the old Conan Doyle stories to the present century—Elementary reimagined Holmes and Watson and changed their story. Same with HBO’s Perry Mason. And I have zero issues with it. If I want something traditional, the old TV is airing everyday on MeTV and I can go watch an episode. Or I can pick up one of Gardner’s books. I don’t want a warmed up retread. I want something new. That’s what this show is.

The writers of season 2 do take a page from Gardner’s often intricate plots. Brooks McCutcheon, son of a wealthy father, who has some shady dealings along with his philanthropy and driving desire to be Major League Baseball to Los Angeles. He is the one murdered in episode 1 of this eight-episode season. The accused are Rafael and Mateo Gallardo, poor Mexican-American young men who live in one of the Hoovervilles. (Historical note: I loved the use of “Hoovervilles” among the characters but none of them felt compelled to have an “As you know…” aside.) 

As with any good Gardner story, the more Mason digs into a case, the more oddball things crop up. This one has a few, but the highlights of this series are the individual moments that serve to mature and grow the characters. Mason, trying to make up for being an absent father really tries to be a part of his son’s life and ends up dating one of his teachers. Della meets and falls in love with a rich screenwriter and sees what it’s like not to have to live in a boarding house and be able to go to nightclubs that cater to lesbians. Paul’s story is not as happy, as the case compels him to do things he doesn’t want to do, putting pressure on his marriage and his living arrangements with his wife’s brother. 

Like the intro to this post, a key feature to any Perry Mason story is his courtroom theatrics. There are some in this show that are really good, including one fantastic one, but you’ll have to watch the show to see it because I’m not spoiling it here.

When you get to the end and the culprit is revealed, it will likely cause you to reflect on the entire series and think back to moments and if the writers telegraphed the ending. I’ll leave that up to you, too, but I’ll say that it makes sense. 

With the TV show, by the time you got to the end of an episode, there were clear winners and losers and the end result was as black and white as the film used to make the show. But we’re in the 21st Century now and few things are crystal clear. Both seasons of Perry Mason mirror the era in which we find ourselves living, and I’m perfectly fine with that, too. It’s more real, more nuance, and harkens back directly to a quote Mason heard in season 1 and repeats in season 2. 

I have grown to really like this series and it hangs on a point where a potential season 3 could show us the modern version of the old TV show. Boy, I hope we get a third season.

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