“Perry Mason” Recap: “Chapter One” is gorgeous but tries too hard

Perry Mason Chapter One Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO

Matthew Rhys steps into the gumshoes of the famed private investigator for a shaky but sumptuous first episode.

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Created in a series of detective novels and short stories by Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason is a pop culture icon from another time.  A crusading defense lawyer who always establishes the innocence of his clients, Mason has been the hero of films, radio dramas, and, most notably, the television series and TV movies starring Raymond Burr as the titular character. 

The most memorable element of any Perry Mason episode was, of course, the inevitable courtroom confession by the real killer or killers, usually after a breakdown on the witness stand. The last Perry Mason TV movie aired all the way back in 1995, making the Perry Mason brand a rare holdout in a sea of reboots and reimaginings. 

Until now! Under the watchful eyes of showrunners/this episode’s writers Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, HBO has decided to give Perry Mason a gritty noir reboot that brings back fond memories of previous HBO period dramas like Carnivàle and Boardwalk Empire while also begging the question: was anyone asking for this particular thing this particular way? Directed by Boardwalk Empire alum Timothy Van Patten, “Chapter One” is a gorgeous hour of television that is possibly just trying the slightest bit too hard. 

Perry Mason Chapter One
Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO

Despairing parents Matthew and Emily Dodson (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin) are on the phone with the men who have kidnapped the Dodsons’ one-year-old son, Charlie. The parents are to leave the $100,000 ransom in the dark hotel room where they’re waiting, then they can collect their son from a streetcar. They see Charlie briefly through the hotel window but when they find their son, he has been murdered, his eyes stitched open so that his parents would believe him to be alive when they saw him. 

When the Los Angeles police are less than proactive with pursuing leads beyond the parents themselves (“Gotta arrest somebody”, one detective tells Mason), an elder of the Dodsons’ church hires lawyer E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) to conduct a parallel investigation.

Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) is an alcoholic WWI-veteran and private investigator (that’s right, not a lawyer) living in what remains of his family’s dairy farm (the majority of the land is now a small airport) in 1931 Los Angeles. He and partner Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) are following comedian Chubby Carmichael (Bobby Gutierrez), in the hopes of catching Chubby violating Hammersmith Studios’ morality clause, and Mason manages to capture a few photos of Chubby and rising starlet Velma Fuller (Madeline Zima) having a grand old time on a table full of food. Having only been engaged by the studio to get photos of Chubby, Mason tries to wrangle more money for the pictures of Velma as well, which backfires on him badly by the end of the episode.

“Chapter One” is a gorgeous hour of television that is possibly just trying the slightest bit too hard. 

Following this ignoble job, E.B. Jonathan comes to visit Mason to recruit him for help with the Dodsons’ case, aided by Della Street (Juliet Rylance), Jonathan’s assistant. Deeply cynical (because he’s a Troubled Male Lead), Mason casts doubt on Matthew’s alibi and Emily’s timeline of events, but even he has difficulty pointing fingers at the grieving parents. Mason learns (which the police have not) that a speeding car hit a streetcar the night that Charlie was murdered, and the timing and location might indicate that it was the kidnappers’ car. He shares this information with Detectives Holcombe and Ennis (Eric Lange and Andrew Howard) after they catch him breaking into the hotel room where the Dodsons’ left the ransom. Mason later visits the morgue to see Charlie’s body and finally seems to grasp the ugliness and enormity of the crime, and it remains to be seen how deeply he’ll let it affect him personally. 

A trio of men are waiting in a nondescript room for an unknown fourth member, and we learn that these are the kidnappers, lamenting that they didn’t skip town as soon as they left Charlie’s body on the streetcar.  One is the man who was driving the getaway car, one a seemingly hardened criminal just there to scowl, and the third, an anxious man who seems to have known Charlie, though we don’t learn how. 

The fourth member of their party is revealed to be Detective Ennis, who makes short work of shooting the other three men, but while he’s crushing the driver’s windpipe and telling him that “they made the car!”, the anxious man manages to escape. This is short-lived, however, as he tries to escape from a pursuing Ennis and falls to his death from the roof. 

Perry Mason Chapter One
Merrick Morton/HBO

Back at the dairy farm, Mason is sleeping with Lupe (Veronica Falcón), a pilot from the airport next door after a disastrous time at the Hammersmith Studios New Year’s Eve party where Mason both fails to receive any of the money and gets roughed up by goons.  Lupe offers to take him on a trip to Mexico with her. Mason declines this clearly great offer to drink and try to repeatedly call his ex-wife and son and destroy a toy fire truck of his son’s, but something about the broken toy stirs up a thought in Mason’s head and he takes out all of his case materials and spreads them across his floor. As he looks over the pictures and newspaper clippings, he remembers something that Emily Dodson had told him earlier about her son: that he liked turtles. Whatever revelation this has sparked in Mason’s head remains there, as “Chapter One” ends. 

Additional Thoughts: 

  • Tatiana Maslany appears in a photograph as “Sister Alice”, leader of the Radiant Assembly of God and clear Aimee Semple McPherson analogue, but Sister Alice herself doesn’t make a physical appearance. 
  • This show is beautifully shot and costumed and set designed, but so far the story isn’t doing very much. Early days, though, early days.
  • It’s hard to gauge what amount of attention, if any, will be paid to racial issues of the time. The majority of the characters are white, with the exception of Lupe and a gentleman working at the airport near Mason’s farm. 
  • Executive producer Robert Downey, Jr. was originally slated to play Mason, which I just cannot see, now that I’ve watched the show. 
  • It might be time that we seriously consider that Shea Whigham might just be from the late 19th/early 20th century. He looks so at home. 
  • A content warning: Perry Mason “Chapter One” revolves around a violent crime against a child, and the body of victim Charlie Dodson is shown several times, so viewers should steel themselves. 

Perry Mason “Chapter One” Trailer:

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