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'Perry Mason' returns for Season 2, but the reboot is less fun than the original

Perry Mason, best known to most Americans as the unbeatable defense attorney played on TV with glowering self-assurance by Raymond Burr. When HBO's first installment of its Perry Mason reboot came out in 2020, it replaced this triumphalist hero with a scuffed-up Perry whose origin story bore all the hallmarks of today's prestige TV, from its embrace of long-form storytelling to a pricey, production-designed evocation of 1930s Los Angeles.



Other segments from the episode on March 3, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 3, 2023: Interview with Doc Watson; Review of season two of "Perry Mason".



This is FRESH AIR. The fictional lawyer Perry Mason was created by novelist Erle Stanley Gardner in 1933, but achieved his greatest fame during the TV series that ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966. There's a new version of "Perry Mason" out from HBO starring Matthew Rhys. And its second season begins on Monday. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says the show is getting better as it goes along but still leaves him asking one big question.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Movies and TV have always been notorious for taking literary works and then making adaptations that flatten them out. But lately, ambitious writers and directors have been trying to do just the opposite. They take larger-than-life genre heroes like Batman, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, then seek to invest their stories with a new richness and emotional depth. One who's gotten the smartening-up treatment is Perry Mason, best known to most Americans as the unbeatable defense attorney played on TV with glowering self-assurance by Raymond Burr. When HBO's first installment of its "Perry Mason" reboot came out in 2020, it replaced this triumphalist hero with a scuffed-up Perry, whose origin story were all the hallmarks of today's prestige TV, from its embrace of long-form storytelling to a pricey production designed evocation of 1930s Los Angeles.

The characters had been modernized, too. Played by Juliet Rylance, Della Street went from being Perry's easy-on-the-eyes secretary to his closeted lesbian assistant who knows the law better than her boss. Swaggering private eye Paul Drake was a cop played by Chris Chalk, who paid the price of being honest and Black. As for Perry, that's a terrific Matthew Rhys. He was bitter, depressive, hotheaded, two-fisted, hard drinking and only rarely brilliant in the courtroom. Although Season 1 was glum and saddled with a clunky plot, all the retooling made it reasonably engrossing for old Mason fans like me. But it left me wondering about the whole enterprise. Would the second season deepen things enough to justify completely making over a popular character?

This time out, Perry and his team represent two young Mexican Americans charged with murdering Brooks McCutcheon, the unlikeable son of an oil tycoon. Their search for evidence takes them to all parts of the city, from the Latino shantytown where the accused live to the fancy seaside gambling den run by the murder victim, from Black neighborhoods struggling with the Great Depression to the sunlit mansion of a woman oil baron, Camilla Nygaard, played by always excellent Hope Davis, who speaks in epigrams. Along the way, Perry, Della and Paul, who's now an ex-cop, all face situations that could leave them ruined, if not dead. And in different ways, they all bump up against the noir-ish realities of a Chinatown-era LA, where law enforcement serves the rich. Here, the cynical DA, Hamilton Burger - that's Justin Kirk - explains to Perry how the legal system works.


JUSTIN KIRK: (As Hamilton Burger) Don't you know what we're selling by now? There is no true justice. There's only the illusion of justice.

MATTHEW RHYS: (As Perry Mason) The illusion of justice.

KIRK: (As Hamilton Burger) The fantasy that keeps people believing that truth always prevails. Bad guys get caught, good guys put them away.

RHYS: (As Perry Mason) Why are you the district attorney? Or are you just the illusion of the district attorney?

KIRK: (As Hamilton Burger) Because I'm the hero of that story. And as long as people still believe in justice and there's a system in place that looks like it works, I'm doing what the city pays me to do.

POWERS: Now, the happy news is that this second season is clearly better than the first. The crime plot has more snap, and our heroes confront trickier moral issues. Perry's angry righteousness keeps bumping up against facts he doesn't like but can't ignore. Paul gets sucked into deeds that may harm his own community. And the slightly saccharine Della learns that when you're in the closet, you'd best be careful whom you get close to.

As the clip suggests, the series offers a much darker and more complex vision of justice than you found in the old "Perry Mason" show or the original books by Erle Stanley Gardner. And yet, while the series complicates and diversifies the "Perry Mason" universe, the show is far less fun than the old Raymond Burr series. Even as it lures us in with the "Perry Mason" brand, it all but ignores the shark-like courtroom demeanor that made him less a lawyer than a legend. It lacks the inventiveness of "Sherlock," a reboot that manages to update and deepen Conan Doyle's original, yet still preserve all the things we love about Sherlock Holmes.

Perhaps the whole idea of this series is to deconstruct the original, transforming Perry from a white male savior into a decent-but-tormented attorney who's just trying to get by. But it does raise the question of why the show's creators didn't simply come up with a whole new show rather than throw away the one thing that gives the "Perry Mason" stories their alluring pop brio. A Perry who doesn't unmask the murderer in a courtroom showdown is like a Sherlock Holmes who doesn't find any clues or a James Bond who doesn't use his license to kill.

BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed the TV series "Perry Mason," which begins its second season Monday on HBO. On Monday's show, why police violence and misconduct so often go unpunished. We talk with Joanna Schwartz, UCLA law professor and author of "Shielded: How The Police Became Untouchable." In her book, she examines the laws and policies that protect police and why reforms are so hard to implement. She also tells the stories of victims who sought justice. Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Mike Villers. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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