By Simon Crittle
Of all the genres to have captured the screens of popular imagination, private eyes have dominated the airwaves like few others. The PIs of film and television have allowed us to escape into places where rules and convention mattered as little to the stars as the female characters who doted on them. The formula of gritty male protagonist, with a vice and imperfect past, reluctantly yet righteously on the hunt for the ugly truth, it seems is timeless. It’s as if Magnum, P.I. is in fact the same character as Sherlock Holmes, only with a mustache and an American-sized portion of ego.
So reliable is the private investigator to binge-worthy success, HBO has rebooted one of the best-known names of black-and-white. Perry Mason, however, is no longer the criminal defense lawyer of the 1950s. Instead the character invented by author Erle Stanley Gardner is a Depression-era private eye played by Matthew Rhys, the Welsh actor best known for his role in the TV series, The Americans.
Set in Los Angeles and beautifully shot, the miniseries begins, as most of its genre do, with a crime. A couple are on the phone with the kidnapper of their baby, a suitcase full of ransom money at the ready. They leave the money and rush to their baby’s location only to find him dead and mutilated. The gruesome murder becomes a media sensation and Mason, a hard-bitten alcoholic and World War I veteran is, of course, the only person brash enough to take case.
Perry Mason has garnered positive if mixed reviews. Sean T. Collins of the New York Times says, “corruption, torture, murder, full-frontal nudity, foul mouths, a dead baby: Perry Mason boasts the full complement of HBO’s genre-revisionist techniques. But Rhys is the glue holding it all together. I can’t recall the last time I saw a lead performance this embodied, for lack of a better word; Rhys’s every glance, expression and gesture seems made of weariness the way Abraham Lincoln’s cabin was made out of logs.”
Joshua Rivera of the Verge is less flattering when he says the show is a gorgeous exercise in style over substance. “Perry Mason is a detective story that’s strangely reluctant to go all-in on being a mystery,” says Rivera. “While it is concerned with one long case — the ransom and subsequent grotesque murder of an infant — that case’s twists and turns are meandering and muddy, as the effort to trace the ways a horrific murder ripples through every aspect of the community begins to feel more labored than natural or revealing.”
Rebecca Nicholson of the Guardian, however, is almost all-in for Perry when she says the show is promising enough to stick with. “As a series, it takes itself desperately seriously. The episodes are called chapters. Men glower from beneath their brimmed hats, and there is a lot of intense smoking, characters furrowing their brows and dragging on cigarettes as if breathing their last breath.” Nicholson concludes she can’t wait to see how Mason cracks the case in coming episodes, yet while Perry Mason “does not yet feel particularly comfortable in its own skin, there is clearly plenty more to come.”
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