Why You Should Be Watching 'Perry Mason' on HBO

It's dark and disturbing, for one thing.

perry mason

Depending on how old you are, the name Perry Mason might carry a ton of weight or absolutely none at all. Which is to say, your parents or maybe even your grandparents probably adore Perry Mason, the character based on the long-running series of detective novels by Erle Stanley Gardner and portrayed by Raymond Burr on the popular 1957–1966 CBS show. But HBO's new Perry Mason, which debuted Sunday night and stars Matthew Rhys (The Americans), is very much not your parents' (or grandparents') Perry Mason. The courtroom procedural, with its case-of-the-week structure, has morphed into a gritty noir that mashes up Raymond Chandler-esque vibes with prestige TV trappings in the vein of True Detective and Boardwalk Empire. So what's the deal with this new series? And why doesn't it feel like something you'd see on TV Land?

Can you tell me more about Perry Mason?

Sure. The stalwart criminal defense attorney Perry Mason was introduced in the 1933 Gardner novel The Case of the Velvet Claws and his twisty adventures continued in more than 80 subsequent books. From 1934 to 1937, Warner Bros. released six Perry Mason movies and CBS Radio gave him a daily crime serial that ran from 1943 to 1955. But the TV show is what elevated Mason to the pop-culture pantheon. As CBS itself explains in this handy video, Perry Mason was essentially the first legal procedural, paving the way for the likes of Law & Order and The Practice. In an article about the show's finale, the New York Times' Jack Gould explained: "If Mr. Burr altered the stolidity of Mason, it would be like giving the Rock of Gibraltar a paint job. The Perry Mason program is the best living example of how to make individual shows appear to change so that a series always stays the same."

Why are we getting a new Perry Mason? 

The short answer: Robert Downey Jr. The erstwhile Iron Man has been obsessed with rebooting Perry Mason for nearly 10 years now and initially planned to star in a movie version before passing off the role to Rhys for this limited series. If you get a hint of True Detective from the series, that may be because Nic Pizzolatto, the man who told us that time is a flat circle, was initially attached to the project before it was handed to Rolin Jones, who has credits on Friday Night Lights and Boardwalk Empire.

So who is this for? 

This might not appeal to any diehard fans of the old Perry Mason procedural, if they tune in expecting to see the eponymous lawyer prove his clients' innocence in disconnected cases. In HBO's much darker version, set in the early 1930s, Rhys plays Mason, who isn't yet a criminal defense attorney, as a weary private investigator and traumatized World War I veteran. He has an estranged wife (Gretchen Mol) and son, and in the premiere episode he signs on to a truly disturbing case involving a kidnapped baby found dead on Los Angeles' historic Angels Flight railway with its eyes sewn open. (Yes, you see the baby.)

perry mason tatiana maslany

Who else is in the Perry Mason cast?

Mason is working with E.B. Johnson (John Lithgow), a lawyer like Mason will become, and Johnson's secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance), a holdover from all of the incarnations of these tales. In a later episode, Mason will meet detective Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), another colleague from Gardner's books and the CBS show. Wrapped up in all of this is Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), a celebrity preacher in the mold of Aimee Semple McPherson Shea Whigham, playing Mason's work partner; Robert Patrick, as a power broker who hires Johnson to investigate the kidnapping; and Stephen Root, as the district attorney of Los Angeles.

Why should you watch?

Yes, there's a lot of murder and mutilation in this Perry Mason, so be forewarned. This is not lighthearted escapism. Rhys, as usual, is fantastic. He currently has one of the best tortured faces out there, and he's great at lurking in the shadows while barely concealing his own pain. (See also: The Americans.) The show's got meticulous production design, and while the mystery is slow-going at first, it's compelling enough to keep an audience interested. And it does seem like the Perry Mason name has gotten viewers interested: The show had one of the highest debuts of any HBO series in the past two years.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.