“Despite all your brooding cynicism, you still believe in justice!”
This is Hamilton Burger, personal friend and professional nemesis to the title character of Perry Mason, in the legal drama’s long-delayed second season premiere. The first season occasionally used Burger (played by Justin Kirk) as a mouthpiece for all the ways this take on the character wouldn’t resemble either the Erle Stanley Gardner novels or the black-and-white TV series with Raymond Burr. At one point, for instance, he warned Perry (Matthew Rhys) that “No one confesses on the stand,” when the entire point of Mason in his previous incarnations was his ability to manipulate the real killer into admitting guilt under oath.
But this second season is under new management, with The Knick creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler replacing Season One showrunners Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald. They allow poor Ham Burger to speak more highly of the noble ideals that lurk beneath Perry’s bitter surface, and in general seem less embarrassed to be making a Perry Mason show than Jones and Fitzgerald were. The new season is still more dour than it probably needs to be, but it’s more solidly crafted and entertaining on the whole, and no longer feels like a cynical attempt to exploit a familiar title for an audience too young to know or care about the substance of it.
It helps that in Season Two of our legal drama, Perry actually starts out as a lawyer, rather than as a low-rent private eye who has to be dragged into court kicking and screaming. For all the faults of that first go-around, it at least ended with Perry finally working out of a law office, alongside trusted assistant Della Street (Juliet Rylance), and cop-turned-investigator Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), giving the new team a sturdier framework on which to hang their story.
Though it’s been nearly three years since the last episode, the season picks up about six months after the events of the previous one. There is still a bit of Perry refusing the call, as the messy conclusion of his first murder trial has convinced him to forego criminal law in favor of civil cases. When we catch up with them, Perry and Della are helping a ruthless, ambitious grocery store owner (Sean Astin) sue his competition into bankruptcy. This fortunately doesn’t last too long, as the partners get caught up in another murder trial, this time involving Mexican-American brothers Mateo (Peter Mendoza) and Rafael (Fabrizio Guido), and local philanthropist Brooks McCutcheon (Tommy Dewey), who is publicly adored and privately sketchy.
The new producers have kept the hard-boiled trappings that come with setting the show in the early Thirties(*), with lots of men in hats, lots of tough guys, and lots of talk about the promise and peril of Los Angeles in that nascent moment. Perry gets close with Miss Ames (Katherine Waterston), the friendly teacher of his estranged son Teddy; at one point, she insists, “You know what I like about this town? No one tells you what was — only what can be.”
(*) One part of the story comes a few decades earlier than happened in reality, though, with a riff on the Chavez Ravine evictions of the Fifties, which displaced much of the city’s Mexican community to make way for the Brooklyn Dodgers to move across the country.
It’s an odd thing that Rhys, who in real life (or on his travelogue series The Wine Show) comes across as one of the most chipper and gregarious actors in the business, keeps being cast as these pathological sad sacks. But he was awfully good at it on The Americans, and he continues to be so here, especially as Perry struggles with guilty feelings about how the last murder case ended. But Amiel and Begler at least allow slivers of light to poke through the dark cloud hanging over their hero. He and Della banter more, he’s genuinely charming with Miss Ames, and at one point amusingly struggles to eat Japanese food for the first time. The show doesn’t exactly become a laugh riot, but it no longer mistakes wallowing for compelling drama on its own. It’s more aware of some of its tics and clichés, like a scene where a judge tells our hero, “At some point, Mr. Mason, you must find all of your righteousness just a bit exhausting.”
The new season also does much better by Della and Paul in treating them as equal members of the ensemble. Each of them struggles to establish themselves in a world where Perry gets chance after chance simply by virtue of being a straight white man. Della is trying to become a lawyer herself while continuing to navigate what’s possible for a discreet gay woman in this time period. The show also has more fun with her friendship with Ham, who is theoretically her opponent, but is also in the closet, so they can act as each other’s beard. (It helps that Juliet Rylance was one of the leads of The Knick, so Amiel and Begler know how to write for her.) Paul, meanwhile, begins the season frustrated that Perry doesn’t want to use him as much on the civil cases, and has to take an unsavory job working for Perry’s old mentor Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham, still having an infectious amount of fun) just so he and his family can stop living with his brother-in-law.
Paul Raci, who was so wonderful in his Oscar-nominated turn in The Sound of Metal, gets to play in a different kind of sandbox here as Brooks McCutcheon’s powerful father Lydell. He can be cold and menacing, or warm and politic, depending on the person with whom he’s dealing and what he needs out of them, but he is always plotting and always prepared. It’s a strong villainous turn on a show whose Season One antagonists felt more ephemeral. Season One featured Tatiana Maslany as a charismatic radio preacher, but it was a great performance in search of a plot function. Nobody is as extraneous this time around, including a great Hope Davis as an oil baroness with a keen interest in both Della and Ham.
This is not suddenly a perfect show, but it’s more cohesive, more appealing, and more ably justifies its existence as something other than a blatant IP cash grab. It’s still not fully ready to embrace all the trappings that come with the title — the season’s most memorable cross-examination is conducted by Della, not Perry. But even if Perry and Della have to cut ethical corners along the way, it somehow makes them seem nobler for trying to do it in such a crooked film noir world. “It’s not justice that’s an illusion,” Perry argues at one point. “It’s the system.” The two of them intend to keep fighting that system, and Perry Mason now feels built to keep that fight going for a while if HBO wants to keep making more.
The second season of Perry Mason premieres March 6 on HBO and HBO Max. I’ve seen all eight episodes.