‘Perry Mason’ review: HBO’s Depression-noir reboot opts for style over substance

1920s LA is beautifully realised in this period detective drama, but eight episodes in and the case goes very cold indeed

Perry Mason‘s eponymous private eye was first pegged for Robert Downey Jr., but eventually Matthew Rhys (The Americans) landed the role in HBO’s new reboot of the classic TV sleuth. A step down in terms of star power, yes, but the Welshman fits Perry’s grubby aesthetic perfectly. If only the writing were better, then the possibility of RDJ hunting down criminals might not feel like such a missed opportunity.

Set in Los Angeles during the Great Depression, Perry Mason’s production values are top notch – a grand, smoky atmosphere is created by director Tim Van Patten, who helms the early episodes just like he did for Game Of Thrones. Down on his luck and hated by most of LA, Perry is picked out of the gutter by Herman Baggerly (played by Terminator 2 baddie Robert Patrick) to work on an unpleasant murder case he has close connections to. Father to an eight-year-old son he’s never allowed to see and living alone on the family farm, Mason is still struggling to come to terms with his experience fighting in the First World War. Deeply troubled by frenetic battlefield visions, Perry’s past mysteries add much-needed depth to his character.

Rhys’ is not a likable hero – if anything, the supporting parts played by Stephen Root (Get Out) and Shea Whigham (Joker) are easier to get behind. Double Oscar nominee John Lithgow has more lines than those two, but his character, attorney Elias Birchard Jonathan, is made less compelling by some incredibly dull dialogue.

Perry Mason
John Lithgow as attorney Elias Birchard Jonathan. Credit: HBO / Sky Atlantic

Elsewhere, as anti-racism protests continue in the real world, certain storylines within Perry Mason take on extra meaning. An African American police officer discovers a major piece of evidence tied to Perry’s case, but his credentials as a competent professional are questioned because he’s Black. Racial discrimination is nothing new in the field of TV law enforcement, and yet it never fails to disturb.

Over the last 60 years, longevity has been a weapon of Perry Mason’s – CBS aired a series stretching over nine years from 1957, while 30 TV movies were made between 1985 and 1995 – but this latest incarnation suggests he doesn’t quite work in a modern setting. The character has always been a criminal defence lawyer, but by switching him to a more out-and-out detective here, audiences will demand the same level of substance they find in Sherlock, True Detective and Luther. Although an unsettling, sinister vibe creeps into its narrative, the pace of Perry Mason is just too leisurely to thrill – there’s no zip. Even when a huge twist arrives midway through the series, most will struggle to motivate themselves to stick on another episode. Now, who’s for a Robert Downey Jr. marathon?

‘Perry Mason’ premieres on Sky Atlantic tonight (June 22) at 9pm