Originally in Earle Stanley Gardner’s pulpy detective novels (1933-1973), Perry Mason was a Los Angeles-based crime-solving lawyer. Burly actor Raymond Burr embodied Perry in a formulaic CBS-TV series (1957-1966), portraying him as a criminal defense attorney, with Barbara Hale as loyal Della Street.
This edgier, re-imagined version is set during the Great Depression in the early 1930s, and Perry Mason has become a seedy, boozy, cynical private detective, played by wiry Matthew Rhys (The Americans).
“He lives and dies by his mantra: ‘There’s what’s legal and there’s what’s right,’” says Rhys. “The one thing that elevates him is his sense of justice. In his past, he was dealt such a huge blow by a betrayal of justice. It kind of becomes his North Star. So regardless of his means, ultimately, if what he does is right, it’s warranted.”
Created by Rolin Jones & Ron Fitzgerald, it’s directed by Tim Van Patten & Deniz Gamze Erguven. Unlike usual episodic mysteries, they’ve latched onto one particularly violent murder case for the entire eight-episode season, evoking memories of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and revivalist preacher Aimee Semple McPherson.
Suspicions surround both parents (Nate Corddry, Gayle Rankin) and their ties to the Radiant Assembly of God evangelical church, run by inscrutable Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) and her mother, Birdy (Lili Taylor).
Supporting characters include defense attorney E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow); conflicted Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), one of the few African-American officers in the corrupt Los Angeles Police Department; Perry’s Latina lover, the aviator Lupe (Veronica Falcon); and diligent Della Street (Juliet Rylance), who yearns for more than just secretarial work.
What most impressive are John Goldsmith’s period-perfect settings and Emma Potter’s impeccable costumes. Disheveled Perry Mason has a perpetual five-o’clock-shadow and sports a signature fedora.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Perry Mason is a grim, gruesome, gritty 4. Take it or leave it.