Murder and Depression in the City of Angels

Perry Mason: Season 2

I'll be honest, I was surprised when Perry Mason was picked up for a second season. The show wasn't bad. It was fine. The first season lacked the sunk and energy I would expect from a procedural to keep people interested. It was an affecting, but very dour, season of television. Actor Matthew Rhys is good in the lead role, but he very much plays the character like a put-upon sad-sack. It's hard to see how people would want to tune in, week after week, to watch more of this show.

Perry Mason

Now, once you hear that the show was originally meant as a vehicle for Robert Downey, Jr., you can kind of see how it would work. That actor has a certain charisma, a smarmy charm that, even when the chips are down for a character, still shines through. He could be written as a sad-sack, but Downey, Jr.'s Mason would still, somehow, be a lively and engaging character. But that actor stepped away from the show and the series continued on into its first season, and beyond, with the shape of him missing. Nothing about the show as it current stands is bad, but it's still dour and sad, a depressing season of television that just keeps trudging onwards.

Does the second season improve on that at all? Not really. Again, it's not a bad show but the writers seem to really like having their lead character be sad, depressed, and lonely. Even when he finds a woman to be with, he finds a way to screw it up. All he has is his job, lawyering for those that need it in the city of L.A. (circa the 1930s). It's not really Perry that makes the show, even as he's the lead and the titular character. No, it's the people around him that keep this series from diving right into a sad and lonely gutter.

This second season picks up some time after the events of the previous. Perry may have won that case, getting Emily Dodson off for the murder of her baby boy, only to then find that she's killed herself weeks later from the guilt of it all. This causes Perry to give up criminal law, choosing instead to pursue civil cases where, he assumes, he would ruin less lives. That, of course, doesn't play out the way he expected when client grocer magnate Sunny Gryce sues his competitor (and former employee) and takes the man to the cleaners. This, naturally, sends Perry spiraling, wondering what the hell he's doing at all.

A case, however, catches his eye: the murder of Brooks McCutcheon, heir to the McCutcheon fortune, apparently by two Mexican-American men, Rafael (Fabrizio Guido) and Peter (Mateo Gallardo) Mendoza. These two men are tarred and feathered in the media for being Latino, for being poor, and for basically not being the American ideal. Perry, though, has doubts about if the men even committed the crime, so even though it's probably a losing case, Perry takes them on as clients. Now it's up to Mason, his second-in-command Della Street (Juliet Rylance), and investigator Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) to really see what's going on in the McCutcheon case.

Again, I want to state that the show isn't bad, per se, but the general tone and character of the series keeps it from feeling like Must See TV. There's a slow pace to the series, with the season being fully committed to the case of the Mendozas. Yes, there's a bigger conspiracy surrounding the case (because of course there is) and investigating that side of the case fuels the story on the other side. But that's story beat, that's not momentum. Overall, the season lacks momentum. It's perfectly paced to setup, and then conclude, the case within a prescribed eight episodes, and it takes it sad time doing it to get there. I could see another show, maybe a mini-series, tackling the same case in half the time, and with more energy, but that doesn't seem to be the modus operandi of Perry Mason.

I do credit Matthew Rhys for making his character feel lived in. The Perry Mason of this show feels like a fully realized character, with wants and feelings and a desire to do good. Rhys is able to convey all that with his face, his body language, his demeanor. The issue is that his performance makes Mason into someone you really don't want to hang around. I think this is the kind of character Rhys likes to play because I got similar vibes off of him in The Americans, a sad-sack forced to go along with a life he didn't want and can't escape. That's Perry Mason in this show to a tee.

Now, I don't know if that was his character in the previous productions of Perry Mason -- the books, the 1930s series of films, the 1940s and 1950s radio series, or (the most famous version) the television series from 1957 that fed into The New Perry Mason plus the TV films under the "Perry Mason Returns" heading all starring Raymond Burr -- but I have to assume it wasn't anywhere near this bad. There had to be some charismatic charm to the character that, for all of Rhys's efforts, is missing here. Otherwise, damn, how did people hang out with this character (of and on) for the last century? That defies imagination.

Thankfully, outside of Mason, we do have two strong characters to explore who are more interesting, and more vibrant. The first is Juliet Rylance's Della Street, played with absolutely vivacious energy. Even though this show is at times pretty depressing, Della is a bright bit of sunshine. She's still street smart and realistic, but there's hopefulness in her character that's lacking in Rhys's Mason. You want to watch any time she's on screen, whether its navigating the case or dealing with relationships while hiding from the public that she's a lesbian. She's the heart of the law firm (to Mason's well-trod soul).

And there's Chris Chalk's Paul Drake. Chalk is great as the investigator for the firm, played with just the right wary edge and a lot of charisma. While the show was willing to change a few details about these characters (such as making Drake a Black man and Street a lesbian), I bet changing Mason to be Black would have been a step too far. And that's a pity because Chalk has the right energy to him that I bet he would have made a fantastic Perry Mason. In fact, were he the lead I think this should with be at least a letter grade better in my head. He got spark and fire, he commands the screen when he's on it. I wish he was the lead on this show (and I feel bad saying that because I do like Rhys as an actor).

The other thing letting the show down is the case this time. Credit to the screenwriters, this is a different kind of case from the previous season, with new twists, turns, and a different kind of defendant. That keeps the court scenes from feeling stale, for sure, but due to the nature of the case (which I don't want to spoil all the details) I do feel like there's some needed energy missing here. Parts of the case wrap early, others drag out, and the whole ending for the season doesn't feel anywhere near as surprising, or earned, as the show seems to think it should be. It's an air of the inevitable, not a feeling of shock that "Mason pulled another fast one." For fans of the character, I feel like this season especially would be something of a let down.

I think the show could adapt and improve over time. The key would be finding a way to make Perry Mason more interesting in his own show. He needs to find something that makes him even slightly happy, that he can hold onto for a little while. The longer the main character sits in the gutter, sad and drunk and depressed, the longer he'll drag the series down. Whoever Mason is supposed to be in the years that follow this show, he needs to find that character soon. I'm really tired of the Perry Mason that's showing up in Perry Mason, and that means I'm kind of tired of the show, too.