This post contains full spoilers for Perry Mason Season One, which concluded Sunday night on HBO.
It was when prosecutor Hamilton Burger screamed, “No one confesses on the stand!” that I suspected things weren’t going to end well for me and this version of Perry Mason.
Like I said in my review of the series in June, I have no great attachment to the Raymond Burr series, nor have I read any of the books. But if there’s a fictional character whose most famous gimmick, by far, is that he puts the real criminal on the witness stand and talks them into confessing, and you decide to not have him do that in your version? Well, you’d better come up with something really spectacular to do in its place. And the HBO series’ first-season finale utterly failed to do that.
Oh, early on, it presents what appears to be Mason (Matthew Rhys, terrific, albeit asked to shout a lot) pulling the classic move from the old show and the novels. We are in court, and he has called Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard), whom we know to be the man responsible for much of the carnage unleashed across the season, including the abduction and death of baby Charlie Dodson. Our hero isn’t so much cross-examining the dirty, murderous cop as he is using Ennis as an excuse to tell the jury his grand unified field theory of the whole complicated case. Then Burger (Justin Kirk) interrupts, mocks the very courtroom technique that previous incarnations of Mason used successfully hundreds of times against other versions of Burger himself, and we realize the whole thing was just a hypothetical exercise: Mason, Burger, and Della Street (Juliet Rylance) are just preparing to conclude Mason’s defense of Charlie’s falsely accused mother Emily (Gayle Rankin).
When the actual trial resumes, Mason instead puts Emily on the stand in an attempt to showcase her as a loving, devastated parent rather than the monster that D.A. Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root) has made her out to be. She’s convincing, but Barnes is again ruthless when it’s his turn, reminding the jurors of the time she left Charlie in an adjacent hotel room while having an affair, and getting Emily to acknowledge the direct line between the affair and the kidnapping. Mason is passionate in delivering his closing argument, and gets a mistrial when the jury appears deadlocked — in part the result, we find out later, of Perry having his buddy Pete (Shea Whigham) bribe one juror.
Though Pete realizes that the bribe was unnecessary — two other jurors also voted not guilty, swayed by Mason’s defense — it’s a largely cynical, and extremely underwhelming, ending. Previous Mason stories certainly leaned toward wish-fulfillment fantasy — tales of a man so noble, and so smart, that he needs only his wits to talk killers and other criminals into going against their own self-interest and admitting their guilt — but this feels like edgelord-style revisionism. It’s as if the HBO show’s writers couldn’t imagine Erle Stanley Gardner’s pure-hearted and persuasive creation existing in a more “realistic” world, so they had their guy cheat. But in not having Ennis take the stand at all — not even for Perry to try and fail to get him to confess — there’s no real drama at all to the season’s climax. It feels like both Mason and the show simply run out of ideas by the end, and just hope things will work out anyway.
Very little of what happens in the final hour is dramatically satisfying, including the idea that justice for Ennis is instead administered by his partner Holcomb (Eric Lange), who sets Ennis up to be murdered in the desert. Mason is far removed from that, and from so much of what happens, a too-often passive and muted participant in his own story.
The season’s final shot has him considering the loose thread he removed from baby Charlie’s corpse. He never did manage to figure out its source, so he lets it float off into the ocean breeze, one element of many from the season that never amounted to much. Despite Tatiana Maslany’s superheroic efforts as Sister Alice, the church scenes never justified the amount of screen time devoted to them, though that subplot did provide Emily with a future — replacing Alice in the tent shows in return for being given a replacement Charlie of questionable origin.
Meanwhile, Mason’s transition from hard-boiled private eye to fire-and-brimstone defense lawyer — what should have been the entire heart of this season-long origin story — barely registered. If you know the character’s history, it’s funny to realize that Burger is the one who helps his future nemesis pass the bar exam (though, again, it’s Perry cheating to get what he wants), but that scene is basically it. We jump straight into Mason taking over as Emily’s lawyer, and though he has a few minor stumbles in terms of proper procedure and terminology, barely any time is given to seeing him learn what works and what doesn’t in a courtroom. Why bother structuring the season to show us how Perry becomes a lawyer if you don’t actually, you know, show us how he becomes a good lawyer?
Rhys is excellent throughout, though, and the scene in the finale where Perry, Della, and their new investigator Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) banter in the law office suggests the core of a more entertaining and consistent series that starts to let Mason be Mason, with Burger and Pete as the clever rivals on the other side of the aisle. Rhys and Rylance’s chemistry was always strong — the finale has a fun scene where they perform dueling John Lithgow impressions while recalling their late mentor, E.B. Jonathan — and making Drake a black man operating in a very openly racist time was the one bit of Perry Mason revisionism that consistently worked.
But despite the fine performances and sumptuous period photography, Season One is much clearer on what it doesn’t want to be than on what it does. There’s a recent trend in TV — one that started with Netflix, but has spread to the other streamers and eventually to cable outfits like HBO — to treat your entire first season as a premise pilot, explaining in detail how these characters come together to do whatever it is they do. This ignores that the great majority of premise pilots are clunky and more trouble than they’re worth, and that what works best is to just get as quickly as possible to telling stories with that premise. Elongating the process — and using a court case that probably could have been resolved within a couple of episodes, if that — only makes things more frustrating. That brief glimpse of Mason, Street, and Drake as colleagues and relative equals was more exciting than most of the season’s tortured backstory put together. A show where Matthew Rhys gets to be a lawyer full-time and banter with Rylance and Chalk seems like it would be a lot of fun to watch — even if the series going forward agrees with poor Ham Burger about courtroom confessions.