HBO's gritty Perry Mason reboot is not your grandpa's detective show
Back when Perry Mason debuted on CBS in 1957, it was a little bit of a phenomenon for an audience that wasn’t quite used to the courtroom-drama cliches that the Law and Orders of the world riff on now. The series, which was based on a series of detective fiction from Erle Stanley Gardner, followed Perry Mason, a criminal-defense lawyer who goes on a whodunit adventure every week. While the series was an Emmy-winning hit in the ’50s, it's now something of a relic of the past: Courtroom tirades, guys in suits yelling at each other, and episode titles like, “The Case of the Treacherous Toupee.”
Thankfully, HBO’s revival of Perry Mason, which debuts Sunday night, is not that show. And it wants you to know it. HBO’s Perry Mason? He drinks, he fucks, he cops his wardrobe from John Does rotting in a morgue. Though, Perry Mason isn’t all Matthew Rhys cosplaying as a sadboy Gatsby—there’s a beyond-dark child murder mystery at the heart of the show. It’s a lot to take in at first—watching the first episode of Perry Mason is akin to being dropped into the open end of a jazz trumpet—so let’s compare notes with the original Perry Mason to see who’s old and new to the series.
Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason
In HBO’s Perry Mason, Rhys’s lead is a mezcal-guzzling war vet who makes a living as a private detective. Some of his jobs have him making like a retro TMZ paparazzo and taking incriminating pictures of celebrities, then blackmailing their studios into giving him cash. Needless to say, that doesn’t really match up with the CBS show—where Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason was more of a by-the-books defense attorney.
Chris Chalk as Paul Drake
In the original Perry Mason, Drake is Mason’s right-hand man/private investigator and a main character in the show. In HBO’s take, Drake is a beat cop who’s a little better at the detective stuff than the LAPD crew. He doesn’t appear in the pilot episode, but you can bet he’ll get dragged into the Dodsons’ case and work with Mason somehow.
ohn Lithgow as Elias Birchard
Birchard is a personal attorney, elder-statesman type who’s a little bit of a mentor to Mason—he’s the one who gives Mason the big-deal assignment that kicks off the series. Although Birchard doesn’t appear in the ’50s show, he could end up being a composite of some of the police lieutenants in the series, like Arthur Tragg, Anderson, and Steve Drumm.
Tatiana Maslany as Sister Alice
Sister Alice, who doesn’t appear in Perry Mason’s pilot, is also new to the series. She’s the leader of the Radiant Assembly of God, fighting for justice for the death of the Dodsons’ baby. By the looks of it, it seems like she’ll be at odds with Mason’s handling of the case.
Juliet Rylance as Della Street
Street is a returning character from the CBS series, which saw her play Mason’s confidential secretary. You can bet Rylance’s take on Street—which sees her dishing jabs at Mason, and sipping on whiskey in Birchard’s office—will have the character much more involved in the action.
Veronica Falcón as Lupe
You have to roll with Lupe as the best new addition to the Masonverse. She’s a pilot, owner of a speakeasy, and fucks Mason so hard that he falls off his bed. We’ll see how she factors into the rest of the series.
Shea Whigham as Pete Strickland
Strickland is also new to Perry Mason. So far, he plays Mason’s partner-in-blackmail crime, working with him to take those TMZ-style pictures. Here’s a fun line about Strickland from HBO: “Strickland has a brotherly rapport with Mason and a cheerfully rakish demeanor that wins friends and influences damsels.” Cheerfully rakish!
Gayle Rankin and Nate Coddry as Emily and Matthew Dodson
The Dodsons are the first people we meet in Perry Mason—and it’s not the best sight. A mysterious villain is holding their baby boy captive, and when they finally get him back, he’s been killed, with his eyes sewn shut. You probably already guessed that the Dodsons and this particular case are all new to the series. (Remember, OG Perry Mason once solved “The Case of the Bogus Buccaneer.”)