After a cumbersome beginning, I grew to like HBO's version of "Perry Mason."
HBO's Perry is not the suave, self-assured defense attorney memorably portrayed by Raymond Burr in the long-running CBS series. Rather, he's a sad-sack World War I veteran suffering from PTSD who begins the series as a deadbeat private investigator in Depression-era Los Angeles.
While acknowledging author Erle Stanley Gardner's creation of the character, the new Perry Mason is more like a damaged Philip Marlowe, or Jake Gittes.
Hearkening back to the CBS show's courtroom dramas in the final episodes, the HBO version overall is more of a crime procedural in which Mason investigates the kidnapping and murder of an infant. The child's mother is eventually accused of the crime, and Mason and associates prove her innocent and find the true murderer, a corrupt LA detective.
In a dual storyline that converges with the crime investigation, a fraudulent megachurch gains immense popularity through a messianic young evangelist's claims of performing miracles.
Despite the show's gorgeous period details, Matthew Rhys' glum performance as Mason and the dense script made viewing at the beginning an ordeal. I wondered where HBO had lost the humor that gave counterpoint to the the dark stories of "The Sopranos" and "The Wire."
As the series progresses, and Mason grows more like Burr's Perry, Rhys lightens the mood, and the excellent cast achieves dramatic symmetry in exploring characters' personalities and relationships.
The show depicts Mason advancing from private investigator to increasingly assured defense attorney. As Mason gains confidence, realizing that he's found his role in life, Rhys softens his performance, raising Mason's personal appeal.
In another shift from the TV show, Juliet Rylance portrays Della Street as an ambitious, savvy striver, adding new dimensions to Barbara Hale's performance as the character in the CBS serial.
When the accused young mother's aging attorney kills himself, Rylance's Street encourages Mason to study law under another familiar character, Hamilton Berger, and take the bar exam. Mason, as was possible in that era, is admitted to the bar, and takes over the woman's defense, with the assured assistance of Street.
The blossoming relationship of Mason and Street, delicately portrayed by Rhys and Rylance, is one of the show's highpoints. In another HBO twist, Street is a lesbian in a passionate affair with a younger woman flamboyantly portrayed by Molly Ephraim. But there's a smoldering sexual tension between Rhys and Rylance that drives the show, without ever igniting.
Gayle Rankin delivers the show's most mesmerizing performance as Emily Dotson, the mother accused of murdering her son. With her expressive eyes, Rankin registers a range of emotions. An adulterous relationship before the child's death is used to fan suspicions of her guilt, but Mason raises doubts about the prosecution's case, bringing a mistrial.
Rankin shows the anguish of a grieving mother, a woman's yearning for love leading to adultery, a gentle innocence, and the desperation of a woman fearing execution. As with other women on the show, her interactions with Rhys' Mason are an emotional force.
An excellent cast raises the show's narrative tenor from episode to episode. John Lithgow gives a melancholy portrayal as attorney E.B. Jonathan, Mason's mentor, who tragically kills himself when overwhelmed by financial problems and declining abilities. HBO everyman Shia Whigman plays a street-wise private investigator with his usual flair. HBO familiars Lili Taylor and Stephen Root also display the cable channel's pedigree.
Tatiana Maslany blends the charismatic evangelist's exuberance with an endearing underlying vulnerability. She also has a smoldering relationship with Mason, whose denouement provides a bittersweet ending.
Chris Chalk achieves a thrilling emergence as Mason's investigator Paul Drake. In another innovation from the old show, Drake's a black Los Angeles police officer whose investigative brilliance is crushed by the department's virulent racism. Chalk sensitively illustrates Drake's complexities. He's a family man whose wife is expecting a child. Paralleling Mason, Chalk's Drake also grows more assured during the series, ending up as Mason's investigator.
At first blush, I thought HBO's "Perry Mason" a gorgeous misfire. The show doesn't rank among "The Sopranos" and "The Wire," but is a worthy addition to the cable channel's canon. With elements of "True Detective" and "Boardwalk Empire," HBO's "Perry Mason" holds a similar place to those shows in the HBO oeuvre.