HBO’s new take on Perry Mason premiered tonight with an embarrassment of top-tier acting talent and a very disturbing (for real – TW) image of a kidnapped and murdered baby.
This is not your grandmother’s Perry Mason.
Instead of the square-shouldered, broad-chested and unflappably stoic paragon of legal virtue Raymond Burr brought to life from 1957-1993, in the original series and decades of TV movies, HBO’s Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) is a down-on-his-luck P.I. in early 1930s Los Angeles. This Perry uses drink to drive away the demons of his service in WWI, his professional shortcomings, the wolves at the door of the family farm he’s in danger of losing and the distance his ex-wife has put between him and his nine-year-old son since he stopped making child support payments.
When we meet him, Perry is working with his sidekick, Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham, A.K.A. Nucky’s brother, Eli, in Boardwalk Empire). They’ve been hired by a movie studio to catch actor Chubby Carmichael (Bobby Gutierrez) violating the morals clause in his contract– a loophole they want to leverage to dump him because his high voice isn’t working in the transition from silent to talking pictures. Their days-long pursuit pays off when they catch him in the act of eating pumpkin pie from between the legs of fellow actor Velma (Madeline Zima – demonstrating what happens to children whose fathers hire total randos at the door as nannies). (Kudos to this show for subverting HBO’s usually skewed nudity tendencies by immediately following the exposed breasts of Ms. Zima with Mr. Gutierrez running down the street full monty.)
True to the sad sack moment Perry is living through, when he tries to extort a higher fee from the studio for his pics because he captured not one, but two, of their stars violating their morals clauses, he gets roughed up by thugs at a glamorous New Year’s Eve party. What a way to start 1932!
Between his failings as a father and a negotiator, Perry guzzles mezcal with his lover, feisty pilot Lupe (Veronica Falcón). She sees him for what he is, but she seems to enjoy his body and his company enough to grace his bed when she’s in town– and to repeatedly offer to buy his farm.
When Perry’s mentor-figure, lawyer Elias Birchard ‘E.B.’ Jonathan (John Lithgow!), calls him to help solve the abduction and shocking murder of a local baby, it could be the case that sinks or saves him.
E.B. and his trusty assistant, Della Street (Juliet Rylance), take Perry along to meet with millionaire T-1000… I mean Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick). He wants to pay to engage their services to solve the kidnapping and murder of Emily (Gayle Rankin) and Matthew Dodson’s (Nate Corddry) infant son.
Baggerly doesn’t know the couple personally, but they’re members of the church he attends– the congregation led by the beautiful and charismatic Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany!). Perry joins the team for the sake of Baggerly’s deep pockets, understanding that the police won’t be happy to have him looking over their shoulders while they try to do their jobs– a task neither he nor Baggerly feel the LAPD are up to.
It doesn’t take long for Perry to wind up on the wrong side of aggressive copper Detective Ennis (Andrew Howard). They cross paths when Perry’s checking out the scene where the bereaved parents left $100,000 in ransom money in an empty room with a view of Angel’s Flight, which is where they found their baby’s mutilated body. Perry surprises the combative Ennis and his partner, Detective Holcomb (Eric Lange), with news that a traffic cop sighted a green phaeton (a style of open automobile without any fixed weather protection, which was popular from the 1900s until the 1930s) speeding away on the night of the incident.
The detectives are determined to pin the kidnapping and murder on the baby’s parents, particularly the father. He’s aroused suspicions by being a grocer capable of producing $100K in ransom during the depression, and the cops don’t buy that his wife would have slept through her baby being snatched upstairs. Plus, they’re under pressure to make a quick arrest.
Perry visits the morgue to photograph the baby’s body and take one of the threads used to sew his eyes open. It’s chilling, and it contributes to his determination to follow the evidence instead of looking for an easy arrest.
The episode ends with more questions than answers, as Perry considers his growing collection of evidence and newspaper clippings related to the case while the rest of his life appears to be crumbling around him.