Perry Mason, HBO’s prestige prequel of the famous television attorney, is now at the halfway mark. With half the episodes in the can, two things have become very clear: one, Perry Mason isn’t just cynical, it is STEEPED in misery; and two, it is trying SO hard to overcome some of the inherent issues with television procedurals. The show premiered right as everyone was questioning the role of “copaganda” in normalizing aggressive policing and the idea that the cops are always right and there is no “too far” in the pursuit of criminals (which is not always the same thing as the pursuit of justice). To Perry Mason’s credit, it seems like someone involved was already thinking about these things, because through four episodes it is unrelenting in its depiction of a corrupt police force and a too-cozy relationship between the district attorney’s office and the police—something that occurs in the real world and is a big reason why cops never do time for assaulting or even killing civilians. Of course, Perry Mason has the advantage of being set in 1932, when the Los Angeles Police Department was NOTORIOUSLY corrupt, so their depiction of corrupt cops is less a comment on society and more historical accuracy.
But as hard as it is trying to overcome some modern biases and representational issues, Perry Mason can’t escape the black hole of a white savior complex, in which only this one, special white man—better than all other white men!—can save the day. Orbiting Perry is an interesting cast of characters, from his fellow gumshoe Pete (a dusty dry deadpan Shea Whigham, someone PLEASE give this man a starring vehicle), to sassy secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance), to aging attorney EB Jonathan (John Lithgow, reliably good), to his lover, sexy aviatrix Lupe (Veronica Falcón), to police officer Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who will one day be Perry’s own go-to investigator (which begs the question: what happens to Pete?!).
The show’s writers work very hard to ground these characters, to provide them each with a story and persona beyond their role in Perry’s life. Della is a frustrated woman, too smart for the limitations of the era, and forced to hide her sexuality for fear of reprisal. Officer Drake is a good man and a good investigator, but he’ll never make detective because of systemic racism, and he is forced to participate in a coverup that dings his moral compass. And Jonathan is simply left behind, a remnant from a kinder, cozier time when men did business with a handshake. He is totally unprepared for the dirty politics of a “modern” court case.
The past is built in—this is a different time, when a lesbian like Della or a Black man like Paul Drake would face certain exclusions and prejudices. But it’s also built into the framing of the show. It’s called Perry Mason, it’s about Perry Mason, but maybe…we didn’t need another Perry Mason. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying the show. The mystery isn’t so much whodunit—we know from the first episode who killed Charlie Dodson—but more how Perry is going to go from sad-sack private eye to fiery defense attorney, and that is an interesting journey. Plus, it’s always fun to watch Matthew Rhys, television’s greatest sad boy, go to work. But if we’re rethinking the portrayal of policing on television—and so far, Perry Mason is as much about detective work as it is legal maneuvering—then maybe we should also be rethinking which stories we tell, and most especially WHOSE stories we tell.
Because it is unavoidable, that for all the obvious sincerity of the effort, that Perry Mason will come down to one special white guy saving everyone. Perry will, somehow, get his act together, become a lawyer, and not only save Emily Dodson from wrongful conviction, but also give Della a meaningful job, and Paul Drake an opportunity to be a detective. (The big missing piece here is how Tatiana Maslany’s charismatic evangelist fits into Perry’s origin story.) It’s not that I want to erase Perry Mason from the face of the earth—I like this show, and the old one, and the books!—but alongside this show we clearly need to be telling other stories, too. Even trying as hard as Perry Mason is, this can’t be the only story we tell of criminal justice, of noble white men saving the day. I think part of the reason Perry is such a f-cking depressing figure in this retelling is so that he doesn’t appear noble or in any way an appropriate “savior” figure.
But you can’t escape who Perry Mason is, which means you can’t avoid the inevitable conclusion where he will be the one to employ Della and Drake and save all these innocent clients from jail. Unless the show takes a huge swerve in the final episodes, which is entirely possible. It’s working double-time to not only avoid the pitfalls of copaganda, but also to upend many of the tropes the original show helped establish, such as the “will they/won’t they” dynamic between Perry and Della, which the new show just blew up. Right now, Perry Mason is a very stylish, hella depressing show attempting to overcome certain traps of the procedural genre. If it does sideline Perry as the instrument of justice, it will actually overcome certain traps of the procedural genre.