The HBO prequel/reboot series “Perry Mason” is set in the Los Angeles of the early 1930s, just a few years before the Showtime sequel series “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,” but the former just might be more lurid and crazier than the latter — and that’s saying a lot, given there’s a shape-shifting supernatural demon and an angel of death in “Dreadful.”
Both series kick off with horrific murder/mutilations, deal with the racial and class tensions in the L.A. of the 1930s and feature integral subplots involving a young, attractive and conflicted radio evangelist (Kerry Bishe’s Sister Molly in “Penny Dreadful,” Tatiana Maslany’s Sister Alice in “Perry Mason”). But whereas I found “City of Angels” to be compelling and involving pulp fiction, “Perry Mason” became less interesting for me with each passing episode. Despite the first-rate production values and the stellar cast, the plot is like a gleaming 1932 Packard Roadster with serious engine problems: It’s impressive and gorgeous and appointed with all sorts of shiny distractions, but eventually we can’t ignore how it’s weaving all over the road, jerking us around and sputtering this way and that.
The titular character at first bears little resemblance to the crusading criminal defense attorney in the novels and short stories of Erle Stanley Gardner or in the most famous of the adaptations: the Raymond Burr-starring CBS drama from the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, this Perry Mason (played by Matthew Rhys of “The Americans”) isn’t even an attorney when the series begins; he’s a hot-tempered, hard-drinking, self-pitying gumshoe and World War I veteran (he was given a “blue ticket” discharge, somewhere between honorable and dishonorable). Perry has an ex-wife who hates him and a young son he almost never sees, and he spends his nights skulking about the fringes of L.A. with his equally cynical partner Pete Strickland (the always excellent Shea Whigham), armed with a camera and tailing the likes of a Fatty Arbuckle-esque movie star in the hopes he’ll catch the gluttonous boor violating the morals clause in his contract. In other words, Perry’s not a guy you’d want to spend a lot of time with, and even when the character begins to feel the stirring of moral and ethical awakenings, that remains a problem throughout the eight-episode run of the first season.
The great and indefatigable John Lithgow gives a star supporting turn as the legendary (though the legend is beginning to tatter) defense attorney E.B. Jonathan of “E.B. Jonathan & Associates,” the lone “associate” being E.B.’s super capable secretary, one Della Street (Juliet Rylance), who’s at least as well-versed in the law as most attorneys. When E.B. is hired to defend a married couple (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin) who police suspect were complicit in the kidnapping and murder of their infant son, he enlists the services of Perry and Pete to do a deep dive into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles and dig up the truth about this horrific case.
Perry chases clues this way and that, with his investigation taking him inside the doors of the powerful and mysterious Radiant Assembly of God evangelical church, with its star performer Sister Alice, who causes a media sensation when she announces she’s going to resurrect the murdered child on Easter Sunday. He also strikes an uneasy alliance with a police officer named Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who shares Perry’s suspicions about some extremely filthy cops in the department, and he relies on his cozy relationship with the world’s most inappropriate coroner (Jefferson Mays), who finds the workplace to be an endless source of humor and colorful stories.
Dark stuff. “Perry Mason” seems to almost revel in its nastiness and its penchant for grotesque theatrics, whether the camera is lingering over the corpse of a bad guy whose head was blown off or we’re cringing at a memorial service that turns into an obscene circus. Virtually every major player in this story is harboring at least one bombshell secret — and most of those secrets are deeply damning. (The most likable characters are Chalk’s Paul and Rylance’s Della Street.) We get some wonderful supporting turns, most notably from Stephen Root as the obligatory ruthlessly ambitious D.A. who’s exploiting the horrific murder case as a springboard to the mayor’s office. (Some of the courtroom scenes in “Perry Mason” are only slightly less bombastic than the trial scenes in “Chicago.” You know, a musical.)
Matthew Rhys is a greatly talented actor, and he expertly captures the look and feel of a classic 1930s noir anti-hero, but the performance is bigger than the character itself, who seems a little shifty and a little shady and a little out of his league even when he’s rising to the occasion.