‘Perry Mason’ Review: HBO’s Swank Noir Is One of the Most Beautiful Series Ever Made
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Like so many great noirs before, HBO's "Perry Mason" reboot reveals that American outsiders struggle to persevere, despite being subjugated by the world around them. This Perry Mason is not an established defender, but a private investigator who can barely keep his license. Della Street is an overworked and undervalued assistant who is only prevented from self-made success by her gender and forced to hide by her partner choice. Paul Drake is a Black Beat Cop, whose authority only lasts until a white officer shows up - sometimes not even then.
Many other characters live in the shadow of polite company, but co-creators Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones take the time to tie together the established elements of the "Perry Mason" lore. The HBO update was developed with confidence, patience, and a voice calibrated for today's audience (if not the fast pace). It seems a far cry from the stuffy CBS process that always had a happy ending - but it's better for that. No one needs another legal drama of the week that treats their defense lawyer like a private investigator, but many people should enjoy being a real P.I. Lead a team of brave rebels looking for justice.
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Oh, and it's also the most beautiful TV series I've seen since "The Knick". One of the best I've ever seen. Really.
When we meet our latest Perry Mason (played by Matthew Rhys with elastic, desperate love), he is as far from a real courtroom as possible. Fitzgerald and Jones come out of a shady case and are desperately looking for a dollar. They shadow Mason's initial desolation with clever sayings that reinforce the current status of the future lawyer. His "good suit" is the handover of a hobo. He goes shopping in the morgue. At the end of a long, hard day, his first housework pulls a cow from the airfield, which was built next to his family farm. Watching Rhys swap for a dead man's tie and pulling cattle through a field is delightful, even if it pounds his character's early problems home: Perry has a hard time, and worse, he accepts "rough" than his de- facto lifestyle.
That is, until a jerky case hits him for a loop. The opening moments of the series show that a failed kidnapping leaves a child dead, desecrated and leaves his family in doubt. No one can find out who wanted the money or why, so the finger points to parents Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin). Your lawyer, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) employs Mason to get to the bottom of what leads him to a church with a cult following, its leader, Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), and the assigned officials who should have spoken to her . but not.
For anyone looking for catharsis on TV, "Perry Mason" is not afraid to present police officers as the bad guys (long a staple of the genre). When Mason asks his client why he didn't go to the police, this is a trick question that is easy to see: "I wouldn't trust the Los Angeles Police Department to do the job it needs," the client says . "Neither do I," Mason replies and strikes - he takes the case for the same reason that you set your DVR to record all eight episodes. This new "bricklayer" is still a pure white man, but he is attentive and includes a number of perspectives. Corruption in the LAPD is investigated by a black officer grappling with his place in a unit that offers much more complicated questions of identity than a white investigator who breaks his camera or kicks his stomach. It would be difficult to see even half the season and not feel that Officer Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) and Della Street (Juliet Rylance) could wear the show (and when you get to the end, it's clear that their roles will only be expanded in the future seasons).
If anything, this first season is a setup rather than a payoff, though I would argue that it is necessary to set the goals of this series compared to previous iterations of "Perry Mason". The case itself is a bit thin and spans too many episodes. Maslany's B-plot about the church also has difficulty earning its considerable screen time (as does Maslany, who wisely doesn't try to overdo her more dramatic scenes, but is still too passive to shoulder so much) . The women in the series deserve more inwardness overall, but here, too, the show is geared towards improving itself next year. "Perry Mason" is an exquisitely rendered crime noir for people who appreciate the genre - or simply for people who generally value thoughtful, detailed, and targeted storytelling.
But let's look at the look of this show, which is second to none. The two directors responsible for these first eight episodes happen to perfectly reflect the dual nature of the series. Tim Van Patten, who heads the first half of season one, is Emmy, HBO and TV King. Van Patten, who was first nominated for his work on "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City", consolidated his legacy by helping to shape "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Pacific" - and it's easy to see how both projects work brought him together well for "Perry Mason". You can see "The Pacific" in the war flashbacks from Episode 2 (Perry is a veteran), although these battle scenes remain as different as the rest of the show. While only a decade separates the settings of the two series from the Depression, Patten's latest version is set on the opposite coast - and it shows. 1930s Los Angeles offers more sunshine, space and elegance that suits the nearby Hollywood studios. The costumes (by Emma Potter) aren't as extravagant as those of New Jersey gangsters, and the flawless selection of lights creates an ambience that resembles the best black and white noirs, only in color. (The shadows, the key lights, the night shots, my god.)
If Van Patten is the veteran who represents the old Hollywood roots of "Perry Mason", then Deniz Gamze Ergüven is the New Age outbreak that benefits from the decisions of his predecessor as well as new perspectives in the second half of the season for yourself. Anyone familiar with Ergüven's 2015 film "Mustang" or the episodes of "The First" in 2018 will recognize the rawness of their evoked performance, as well as an accomplished, stylized expression of fantasy that transitions into reality. Some of Perry Mason's key shots and iconic moments fall to her, and Ergüven doesn't disappoint. (Neither did Emmy award-winning cameraman David Franco.)
Her work fits seamlessly into her collective vision, and "Perry Mason" is an amazing visual achievement for its specific framework and overall construction of the world. There are impressive pictures of a pitch black profile and elaborate outdoor shots of real places in Los Angeles. In some shows, intimate conversations between two people can conflict with the great scenes, so everything that's inside (probably shot on the set) feels cut off from the rest of the series. Thanks to production designer John Goldsmith, “Mason” has the intuition (and budget) not only to reconcile visual opulence with smaller, private moments, but to fuse them - there is a scene where Perry and Della share a bottle of alcohol And instead of placing them in front of a solid background, they are standing in front of two windows upstairs. Cars drive past, light shines through the windows, and you can see people walking outside on the street. The bigger world never goes away and Perry Mason feels all the more grounded.
"Perry Mason" may not be punished for what it is, but for what it is not. Fans of the CBS series might feel that the new iteration gives the man they remember too much freedom, while a younger audience may be too impatient for a slow-burning thriller that focuses on images and language rather than on based on a rush of melodrama. But from the pilot to the last episode, "Perry Mason" knows himself: This Perry Mason is a rebel and brings everyone with him.
Note: B +
“Perry Mason” premiered on Sunday June 21st at 9:00 pm ET on HBO.
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