Pop Culture

The New Perry Mason Is Good

I wasn’t sure about the new Perry Mason, a reboot of the classic series about a masterful defense lawyer who could get anyone to confess on the stand. I wasn’t sure, when I saw the trailer, if it would end up leaning too heavily on the noir signifiers. (You call legs “gams,” we get it!) I wasn’t sure who it was targeting, exactly—anyone who watched and enjoyed the original iteration as an adult is too old to want to watch Perry Mason fuck in a seedy HBO drama; anyone younger probably wouldn’t care about the franchise. And I definitely wasn’t sure after I watched the pilot and thought, “Ah, so this really is just Perry Mason, But He Fucks.”

But now, in advance of Sunday’s season finale, I am sure. And in a Perry Mason moment of my own, I’m admitting to you on the stand (this blog post): I thoroughly enjoyed the new Perry Mason.

The show is meant to serve as a gritty backstory for the eponymous lawyer from the wildly popular television program starring Raymond Burr and, originally, a series of detective stories written by Erle Stanley Gardner. Before he becomes the upstanding fictional attorney beloved by your grandparents, Perry (Matthew Rhys) is a divorced ne’er-do-well drunkard struggling with World War I flashbacks and making a living as a private investigator, producing blackmail on various unsavory characters in early-1930s Hollywood. But when he’s tasked with investigating a gruesome kidnapping and murder of a one-year-old baby, he’s moved and compelled to seek justice.

The first episode blatantly crammed every single HBO prestige motif it could—Sex! Murder! Anti-hero! Shea Whigham!—into an hour, which left me less than optimistic. But then I began to settle in and appreciate it for what it is: a solid standalone entity rather than part of a pre-existing cultural institution in which I had no investment. Besides wanting to see the mystery through, here’s what won me over.

Matthew Rhys.

This reboot was initially meant to star Robert Downey Jr., with True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto attached to write and direct. But, because that is too much grit for any one human being to withstand, we ended up with Rhys instead—a far superior choice, especially if you miss The Americans as much as I do. Offscreen, Rhys is a Welsh bon vivant married to Keri Russell who hosts his own rollicking wine show. Put him on television, and he plumbs the depths of brooding sorrow—The Ringer unpacks his many faces of malaise here—while remaining entirely charming. (You know what would be even more charming? If we ever let Matthew Rhys use his Welsh brogue on television.)

Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason.

Merrick Morton / Courtesy of HBO

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