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HBO Releases A 'Perry Mason' Makeover


The classic TV legal drama "Perry Mason" gets a major makeover from HBO in a miniseries which debuted yesterday. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says it bears minimal resemblance to the buttoned-down original.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: If you're familiar with Raymond Burr's turn in the 1950s-era "Perry Mason" series, you're going to have a tough time recognizing HBO's version. Instead of a coolly confident defense attorney in tailored suits, HBO's Perry Mason is a scruffy private investigator working for a defense attorney. Played by Matthew Rhys from "The Americans," this Perry Mason struggles with PTSD from military service, has a drinking problem and always expects the worst from his cases.


MATTHEW RHYS: (As Perry Mason) Everybody's up to something. Everybody's got an angle, hiding something. And everybody is guilty.

DEGGANS: Yeah, that's a change from the old show, when Perry's clients were usually innocent and the culprit often confessed on the witness stand. Della Street, his beautiful assistant/secretary on the old show, is secretary to the attorney who employs Mason in HBO's tale. Played by Juliet Rylance, Street is sassy, independent and has zero patience for Mason's self-centered moping.


JULIET RYLANCE: (As Della Street) It's very easy for you to break the rules, isn't it?

RHYS: (As Perry Mason) The way I see it, there's what's legal and there's what's right.

RYLANCE: (As Della Street) You know you can be profoundly irritating.

RHYS: (As Perry Mason) All right.

RYLANCE: (As Della Street) Quite frankly, I find it offensive that you choose to mask your intelligence and decency with cynicism and slothfulness. And you never accept any help.

RHYS: (As Perry Mason) I'm letting you help me finish this bottle.

DEGGANS: HBO has cooked up a gritty film noir set in the 1930s, like the early "Perry Mason" novels written by Erle Stanley Gardner. This new version is executive produced by Robert Downey Jr., who was initially going to play Mason, showing a country struggling in the Great Depression. This Perry Mason seems smaller and pettier than the classic character, hustling for every dollar in a hardscrabble Los Angeles. Downey might have given this character some likable charm, but Rhys just comes off like a self-destructive know-it-all. He's trying to help a couple accused of setting up a fake kidnapping with a disturbing result - their baby dead with its eyelids sewn open. And that may be what distinguishes this "Perry Mason" most from its original form - its gruesome cynicism. In this "Perry Mason," law enforcement isn't just dumb. It's violent, corrupt and ruthless. John Lithgow has a poignant turn as defense attorney E.B. Jonathan, debating with Mason and Street whether a grocer and his wife could have killed their baby.


JOHN LITHGOW: (As Elias Birchard) I've stood with those two. That's grief not guilt.

RHYS: (As Perry Mason) I'm just pointing out that someone knew they were good for a hundred grand. How do you figure that from the guy who sells pickled cucumbers and aftershaves? It's queer from both sides.

RYLANCE: (As Della Street) And the baby - someone stood over Charlie and stitched those eyes.

RHYS: (As Perry Mason) Yeah, it's a dark tunnel; long, long, deep, dark tunnel.

DEGGANS: There's more, including "Orphan Black" star Tatiana Maslany as a radio evangelist who befriends the couple and Chris Chalk as Paul Drake remade as an African American police officer who eventually joins Mason's team. Even though the series unfolds a bit as an origin story explaining how Mason came to be a defense attorney, it also feels confusing and disconnected from the classic show's legacy. I kind of wonder why they even bothered calling it "Perry Mason." On the charge that HBO's new "Perry Mason" fails to create a new vision of the iconic character for today, I'm afraid the verdict on that one is guilty as charged.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.