Perry Mason: The First Season (2020)

In the dramatic prequel based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s books (and the Raymond Burr television series), Matthew Rhys (The Americans) plays Perry Mason pre-law days. He’s a sad-sack private eye in 1932 Los Angeles, dealing with his PTSD after the war and divorce, suffering through the Great Depression like everyone else. He’s rumpled, depressed, and not thinking like the clear-eyed lawyer at the center of the CBS television series that ran from 1957-1966. But when he’s hired to investigate the murder/kidnapping of a toddler, he’s forced to make some life-altering decisions.

Attorney Elias Birchard “E.B.” Jonathan (John Lithgow) directs Mason to investigate, alongside his partner Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) and Jonathan’s secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance). They encounter black beat cop Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who knows things that other (white) police officers don’t want coming to light, and look into the background of a traveling evangelist, Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black). The murder investigation unearths more killings, infidelities, and financial mismanagement, in a layered web of evil and deception in the midst of Los Angeles.

While I don’t remember much of the old black and white series, HBO’s reimagining of the characters in prequel form provided a highly entertaining deep-dive into the impact of war on a person’s soul, and the frustrations of those trying to keep law and order in a political system. With the added religiosity mixed in, with a significant dose of religious fanaticism, the show has many layers of storytelling.

Watching the series, one is left with questions about truth, about justice, and about the human experience. What is real, and why are we here? Do our lives matter? What difference does it make for us to choose right and wrong – and is there a theological importance to what we are doing? Mason’s exploration into a murder of a small person becomes way more than that over the course of the first season, and we should only expect more of that in the second season.

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