‘Perry Mason’ Season 2 Is So Good It Makes Corruption Shine 

HBO’s “Perry Mason” is a particular kind of drama that sustains itself mostly on its rich atmosphere. That’s a common observation with much television these days, as production quality remains high for excellent and even subpar programming. But with this series it holds very true. You can follow the noir plotting at its barest, since it takes so long to flesh itself out, yet the real enjoyment is taking in the details. There are the dark, rain-soaked streets and most importantly, Matthew Rhys as the lead. He remains crucial in transforming this concept from its previous incarnation as a crime-of-the-week serial into the sort of brooding treatment you might expect from a Christopher Nolan. The first season received a mixed response for its archaic, slow burner case. Season two still burns slowly, but the case is better and the cast keep it alive.

It’s been three years since the show’s premiere and there’s no hurry to recap. Writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler fashion a new start for Mason (Rhys). He’s now a practicing attorney with partner Della Street (Juliet Rylance). Their approach seems to clash because it pains the former private investigator to represent clients who can be scumbags, like the store owner with means trying to destroy his former employee. It is 1932, the Great Depression is in full swing and the rich can be cruel. Della, the trained law student, is happy just having work that pays. What also weighs on Mason is his conscience, in addition to World War I PTSD he now has nightmares going back to the case from last season. Mason and Della will soon be pulled into a big case involving Brooks McCutcheon (Tommy Dewey), son of oil baron Lydell (Paul Raci). When Brooks is found dead, Mason becomes convinced of the innocence of the accused killers, two Mexican brothers, Mateo (Peter Mendoza) and Rafael (Fabrizio Guido). 

For those who are interested in the art of editing, “Perry Mason” is a strong example of how great pacing can make a show work. While the plot takes a while to unfold, the episodes never meander. The season premiere is mostly about explaining where Mason and Della are in the business of their law firm, but it establishes the very environment of the season. How conflicted Mason is feeling becomes clear with the pair’s case involving a cruel shop owner and the ensuing conversations are keen windows into their psychology. Mason deep down wants to do something that has more moral backbone. But being a saint rarely pays well. It also helps that the plot doesn’t just spring on us out of nowhere. Early episodes establish wider social angles reminiscent of classics like “Chinatown.” Brooks has a scheme to give L.A. its own baseball team, but in order to build the stadium he devises a plan to kick out Mexican immigrants from their homes. This is a clever use of a later event in history, the 1950s Chavez Ravine evictions which paved the way for Dodger Stadium.

With Kafkaesque precision, Mateo and Rafael become perfect scapegoats when Brooks is found with a bullet through his eye. Noir always fits well with sly social commentary. On the radio we hear right-wingers calling for mass deportations and in court the defendants are treated with openly racist disdain. Also facing the city’s racism is Mason’s former investigator Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who lives with wife Clara (Diarra Kilpatrick) and is approached by another former colleague, Pete (Shea Whigham). These very well-written and brilliantly-acted characters each have their own crisis of conscience when hired to do dirty work for Thomas Milligan (Mark O’Brien). Milligan serves DA Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk) and has Pete target and snoop on specific targets that give us a view into the city’s deep political corruption. Here is also where the show’s sharp writing and style help because at times all these extra layers of characters and plotting can make the overall arch of the season feel overstuffed. Della is also having a love affair with a local writer, Anita St. Pierre (Jen Tullock), and Mason finds a love interest in his son’s teacher, Ginny Aimes (Katherine Waterston). Both romantic angles are allowed to develop believably and organically, with plenty of sensuality and melancholy.

Each of these story threads are so well-written we wish there was more room. But there is a plot at work here and we have to deviate to clues involving thugs beating up someone connected to Brooks next to an oil field. Having too much of a good thing is better than having a bad show. There is even room for smart humor in jokes about how taking your kid to see “King Kong” could shock Ginny (“were there no burlesque houses to take your son to?”). Shots are so well-staged, like Mason meeting Lydell meeting at a racetrack at magic hour that we’re engaged beyond the cryptic exchange. Noir is such a tradition that we can already guess who might have done what, so how the journey is constructed is essential. With a cast like this, “Perry Mason” more than justifies its return and keeps our interest peaked for even more corruption and scores to settle.

Perry Mason” season two premieres March 6 and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.