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'Perry Mason' returns for Season 2, but the reboot is less fun than the original

Matthew Rhys plays the unbeatable defense attorney Perry Mason<em> </em>in HBO's series.
Merrick Morton
/
HBO
Matthew Rhys plays the unbeatable defense attorney Perry Mason in HBO's series.

Movies and TV have always been notorious for taking literary works and then making adaptations that flatten them out. But lately, ambitious writers and directors have been trying to do just the opposite. They take larger-than-life genre heroes like Batman, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond then seek to invest their stories with a new richness and emotional depth.

One who's gotten the smartening-up treatment is Perry Mason, best known to most Americans as the unbeatable defense attorney played on TV with glowering self-assurance by Raymond Burr. When HBO's first installment of its Perry Mason reboot came out in 2020, it replaced this triumphalist hero with a scuffed-up Perry whose origin story bore all the hallmarks of today's prestige TV, from its embrace of long-form storytelling to a pricey, production-designed evocation of 1930s Los Angeles.

The characters had been modernized, too. Della Street (played by Juliet Rylance) went from being Perry's easy-on-the-eyes secretary to his closeted lesbian assistant who knows the law better than her boss. Swaggering private eye Paul Drake was a cop, played by Chris Chalk, who paid the price of being honest and Black. As for Perry — that's a terrific Matthew Rhys — he was bitter, depressive, hot-headed, two-fisted, hard drinking and, only rarely, brilliant in the courtroom.

Although Season 1 was glum and saddled with a clunky plot, all the retooling made it reasonably engrossing for old Mason fans like me. But it left me wondering about the whole enterprise. Would the second season deepen things enough to justify completely making over a popular character?

This time out, Perry and his team represent two young Mexican Americans charged with murdering the unlikable son of an oil tycoon. Their search for evidence takes them to all parts of the city, from the Latino shantytown where the accused live to the fancy seaside gambling den that was run by the murder victim; from Black neighborhoods struggling with the Great Depression to the sunlit mansion of an oil baron (played by the always excellent Hope Davis) who speaks in epigrams. Along the way, Perry, Della and Paul (who's now an ex-cop) all face situations that could leave them ruined, if not dead. And in different ways, they all bump up against the noirish realities of a Chinatown-era LA, where law enforcement serves the rich.

Now, the happy news is that this second season is clearly better than the first. The crime plot has more snap, and our heroes confront trickier moral issues. Perry's angry righteousness keeps bumping up against facts he doesn't like but can't ignore. Paul gets sucked into deeds that may harm his own community, and the slightly saccharine Della learns that, when you're in the closet, you'd best be careful whom you get close to. The series offers a much darker and more complex vision of justice than you found in the old Perry Mason show or the original books by Erle Stanley Gardner.

And yet ... while the series complicates and diversifies the Perry Mason universe, the show is far less fun than the old Burr series. Even as it lures us in with the Perry Mason brand, it all but ignores the shark-like courtroom demeanor that made him less a lawyer than a legend. It lacks the inventiveness of Sherlock, a reboot that manages to update and deepen Conan Doyle's original — yet still preserve all the things we love about Sherlock Holmes.

Perhaps the whole idea of the series is to deconstruct the original, transforming Perry from a white male savior into a decent, but tormented attorney who's just trying to get by. But it does raise the question of why the show's creators didn't simply come up with a whole new show rather than throw away the one thing that gives the Perry Mason stories their alluring pop brio. A Perry who doesn't unmask the murderer in a courtroom showdown is like a Sherlock Holmes who doesn't find any clues or a James Bond who doesn't use his license to kill.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.