Like most shows produced by HBO, Perry Mason wants to be taken seriously as prestige drama, not mere TV. So in the early minutes of the first episode, we hear characters gratuitously using the f-word and view a dead baby with its eyelids sewn open (a sight not made any less ghastly by the show’s unreal digital sheen).
For some time, showrunners have established their artistic bona fides by showing the most lurid, disturbing, and titillating material possible. Gore, sex, and obscenity are guarantees of high purpose, and anyone with real ambition is bound to employ them. But it does grow tedious, even when it appears in a series with as much innate interest as Perry Mason.
Matthew Rhys, best known for playing a tortured, doubting Russian spy on FX’s The Americans, inhabits the title role with his trademark self-loathing. He is a beat-down, used-up private eye (on his way to becoming an attorney) in 1930s LA, that mythic locale, at once temporal and geographic, to which American detective stories keep returning. Once again we see the famous flophouse district of Bunker Hill, with its dizzying staircases and dramatic funicular railway, the “Angel’s Flight.”
Like so many iconic things once made in America – blue jeans, button-down shirts, Puritans – the genuine article long ago ceased to exist. Today we must settle for a mere shadow and counterfeit.
If early hints are any indication, Perry Mason’s plot involves a woman based on Aimee Semple McPherson, the great disappearing evangelist. One of the first great Pentecostal preachers, “Sister Aimee” pioneered the use of radio for ministry, extending her voice across the city. On May 18 1926, she disappeared while swimming on Venice Beach, causing a frantic search. Five weeks later, she reappeared in Mexico, claiming to have been kidnapped. (In fact her disappearance appears to have been partly a publicity stunt, partly a cover for an extended tryst.)
Semple McPherson’s career was memorably described by Carey McWilliams in a chapter of Southern California Country, his great but tendentious study of LA. Another chapter of the same book provided the basis for the water scheme that Jake Gittes unravels in Chinatown. McWilliams, who served as editor of the Nation, took a jaundiced view of Southern California’s Spanish Catholic past and what was in the 1930s its conservative Protestant present. However unlovely some elements of both cultures may be, his outlook had its own oddities. He had the kind of progressive mindset which sees a diffuse, systemic evil extending its tentacles everywhere. As Perry Mason puts it in the new series, “Everybody’s up to something. Got an angle, hiding something. And everybody is guilty.”
This outlook has certain commonalities with the Christian view, which sees the whole world groaning in bondage of sin, ruled by principalities and powers. (“There is a black angel out there,” Mason says. “A big, big black angel with long fingers.”) But whereas Christianity offers redemption, progressive theology offers only condemnation of everyone not allied with the cause of reform.
It remains to be seen how the series will resolve these questions, but one hopes that it will live up to its antecedents. Perry Mason’s origins lie in the crime fiction of Erle Stanley Gardner. In those novels, Mason was a no-nonsense criminal defence lawyer who was not content to have his clients found “not guilty.” He proved them innocent by finding the man who really had committed the crime.
Gardner’s novels became the basis for a successful television series starring Raymond Burr, who had given splendid performances as a noir heavy in Raw Deal, Pitfall, Please Murder Me, and (the non-noir) Rear Window, before going on to play the sympathetic Perry Mason.
Burr was a complicated man. He claimed to have been married to a woman who died in a plane crash after bearing him a son who died young. None of this was true. But Burr’s invented tragedies may have been his way of acknowledging a suffering that he could not otherwise express. (He was closeted.) And his biographical flexibility seemed to fit a man who so skilfully played hero and villain. Rhys, with his wincing self-doubt, is a worthy successor.
Watching Perry Mason takes one back to the past – to an old series, out-of-print books, and demolished neighbourhoods. Like AMC’s Mad Men and FX’s Mrs America, it seems to suggest there was some beauty in that old world that we are supposed to be glad to have lost.