Perry Mason season 1, episode 1 recap – “Chapter One”

June 22, 2020 (Last updated: 3 weeks ago)
Jonathon Wilson 0
HBO, TV Recaps
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As much of a cliché as it is, HBO’s Perry Mason embodies style over substance, with a gorgeous Great Depression L.A. obscuring a dull, downbeat mystery.

This recap of Perry Mason (HBO) season 1, episode 1, “Chapter One”, contains spoilers.

Style over substance is a cliché, and it’s one that virtually every outlet to have reviewed HBO’s reboot of classic sleuth show Perry Mason has used already. But, at least as of “Chapter One”, it’s the most accurate descriptor by far – this is a gorgeous-looking, stylish, and appropriately adult reimagining for the prestige platform, but it’s missing the crackling dialogue and twisty mystery of the best noir it’s hoping to emulate.

Matthew Rhys, though, is at least a great fit for the title character, and the smoky lamp lit aesthetic of Great Depression L.A. is exquisite; this is a perfect-looking setting for a murder, and we get one nice and early in Perry Mason episode 1, though the close-up of a dead baby with its eyes sewed open makes for a lasting visual that I’m not sure I appreciate. Director Tim Van Patten is nonetheless having a field day here, but it’s the writing that lets the side down. Mason is unkempt and tortured by his time spent fighting in World War I and his estrangement from an eight-year-old son he doesn’t see. He spends his days in a rickety farmhouse and earns a meager living snapping candid shots of oddly well-endowed overweight men eating cake off of up-and-coming starlets.

With Robert Patrick, Stephen Root, and Shea Whigham occupying supporting roles, it’s obvious that Perry Mason is shooting for a certain level of upper-crust TV class, but it has the wrong tone for that. It and its characters are schlubby, and the explicit sex, violence, and language feel try-hard surrounded by such classy, evocative cinematography. That off-kilter vibe is felt all throughout Perry Mason episode 1 and feels not just apart from but also slightly hostile to the long-running series’ and TV-movie incarnations of this enduring character.

What’s more damaging, though, is that the dialogue and plot machinations are, at least at this early stage, dull. There could stand to be a lot more energy in how the show churns through its gumshoeing, and perhaps a bit less self-loathing – and indeed loathing in general – in its characterization. As things stand, Perry Mason season 1, episode 1 presents a moody period L.A. that you can’t help but want to disappear inside of – the problem is, there’s nobody worth talking to when you get there.

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