HBO Revives ‘Perry Mason’ as a 1930s Journey Into a Dread-Filled Los Angeles

Although the premiere of HBO’s noir series “Perry Mason” opens with a shocking death, the first image that truly stays in the memory is the face of Mason himself, as played by Matthew Rhys. It is a face worn and tired of the world. Instantly Mason is the perfect noir “hero.” Such a great stroke of casting is part of the rich sense of detail and atmosphere that makes this a show to bask in its environment. HBO’s “Perry Mason” is an adaptation of the character first created by novelist Erle Stanley Gardner, whose writing inspired the original “Perry Mason” show that ran from 1957 to 1966. Like a true revival this is not a retread, but a fresh and dark trip.

The pilot episode, fittingly titled “Chapter One,” does what all first chapters of a good noir do, which is set the terrain and characters while only offering glimpses of the bigger picture. Before we are introduced to Mason we meet a desperate couple answering the call of what sounds like a kidnapper over the phone. It is 1931 Los Angeles, full of fedoras and a now famously extinct railway system. Into one of those railway cars run the couple, Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin), who are handed a bundle which turns out to be their dead infant son Charlie. Cut to Mason who, with his stubble face, works as a private investigator alongside partner Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) for a firm run by E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow). When he’s not out on the prowl getting incriminating photos of the Hollywood elite, Mason lives out in his rundown farm where he occasionally sleeps with a local Mexican aviator, Lupe (Veronica Falcón) but remains haunted by his divorced wife and son. E.B. calls Mason in to investigate the Dodson case at the behest of a local millionaire, Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), who knows the couple from his church. 

From its tense opening shot of a mysterious stranger carrying what is the Dodsons’ dead child into Angels Flight Railway entrance, “Perry Mason” announces itself as more than a revival, but as another HBO show made with a style verging on literary cinema. “Chapter One” is directed by Timothy Van Patten, who helped David Chase famously change the face of modern television, helming various episodes of “The Sopranos.” He would also go on to direct episodes of “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire,” which is a close cousin of the aesthetic displayed here. Producing is Robert Downey Jr., who might be ready to shake off the Iron Man costume for more enriching material. “Chapter One” is thick in ambiance with Mason spacing out in a restaurant with rain-drenched windows, every street corner seems menacing and a rooftop chase has fireworks in the background that are beautiful but also ominous. Office meetings seem lit by Caravaggio and even Mason’s farm, out in the beautiful California countryside, practically evokes a broken soul. 

Gone is the lighter attitude of the original “Perry Mason,” made in a different era of television, including its 1985 NBC movie revivals, all starring Raymond Burr in the iconic titular role. This “Perry Mason” mixes its pulpy roots with total melancholy. Our hero chooses his ties from morgue corpses and drunkenly tries to call his ex on New Year’s Eve. He is a World War I veteran now wandering the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. The notorious “movie biz” of books like Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” comes alive in darkly funny, unnerving moments. Mason sneaks into a mansion to snap photos of actor Chubby Carmichael (Bobby Gutierrez) going down with whipped cream delight on a red-headed movie star contracted to Hammersmith Pictures. This is Hollywood commenting on Hollywood, so of course these are invented winks at real life. Carmichael for example is obviously inspired by Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle, a silent film actor scandalously linked to the death of silent movie star Virginia Rappe. When Mason tries to get $600 from Hammersmith Pictures for the photos, a studio boss responds by having his goons burn a heated gun barrel into the PI’s chest. 

None of “Chapter One” attempts to bend the rules of noir, but instead follows them well enough to create an enveloping mystery. The plot is barely getting started, so what happens in this chapter consists of mostly threatening figures and key characters being introduced. There is little hint as to a clear motive for why anyone would kidnap and kill the Dodsons’ child, aside from money. We get references to the church the couple attended with Baggerly as a congregation run by Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), no doubt inspired by 1920s Pentecostal megachurch figure Aimee Semple McPherson. In a noir, the authorities are the last to be trusted and in “Perry Mason” we get Detective Holcomb (Eric Lange), who later sends his own goon to shoot down some thugs making a payment in a shadowy building for reasons to be revealed later. The final scene is fittingly just as cryptic. Mason pours over evidence and focuses on a picture of a ceramic turtle in Charlie’s room. He freezes and we wonder what connection the PI has made.

Gothic and beautiful, “Perry Mason” could care less about copying its predecessor too closely. Even the music has a curious mixture of electronic thumping and jazzy period sounds. Instead of laying out a clear plot where all is simple and easy, it prefers to pull us in with unsettling moods and images (like startling close-ups of a dead and pale Charlie). Matthew Rhys becomes the most intriguing case of all, crafting the perfect noir detective who hides what makes him tick, and makes us dread finding out.

Perry Mason” season one premieres June 21 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.