Sorry, Grandpa: HBO’s New Perry Mason Totally Changes The Original

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Your granddad's favorite show got the gritty reboot treatment courtesy of HBO, but before he gets too excited, you might want to let him know that the new Perry Mason is going to be different from the old one. HBO's eight-episode reinvention of Perry Mason starring Matthew Rhys, Tatiana Maslany, Chris Chalk, and John Lithgow premieres this Sunday, June 21. And it's set to mark a serious departure for a character that TV viewers know best from the 1957-1966 CBS series starring Raymond Burr in the titular role. Even after the popular courtroom drama ended its run, Burr returned for a series of made for TV movies that aired between 1985 and 1993, making him synonymous with the fictional defense attorney — even though he's far from the only actor to play the role. 
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From radio plays to an ill-fated '70s reboot that only lasted a single season, Perry Mason has been part of the pop culture landscape since the '30s. However, the character has never gotten the origin story treatment until now. Rhys will be the first actor to play Perry before he earned his law license; instead, he'll be delving into the character's past as a P.I. in 1932 Los Angeles. The future attorney is set to become embroiled in a grisly case of kidnapping gone wrong that will find him entangled in a twisted web of corruption that encompasses everything from the police force to an early example of a megachurch. It's a noirish departure that could redefine the character for a new generation, but before the sure to be pitch black series premieres, let's take a look at how HBO transformed Perry Mason from a competent courtroom procedural into an unflinching character study of a broken P.I. in over his head. 

Is Perry Mason Based On A Real Person?

If you're new to the world of Perry Mason, you may be wondering if the famed attorney is based on a real person — he isn't, but he did get his start on the page, not the screen. Perry is the creation of writer Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote more than 80 novels and short stories about the dogged defense attorney. In the books, very little is revealed about who the lawyer was before he began saving his clients from wrongful convictions. Instead, the focus is always on the buildup to a courtroom showdown in which Perry will wow the jury with his ability to make guilty people crack on the stand. 
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He doesn't handle all of the legwork alone though. Perry has his secretary Della Street and private investigator Paul Drake on hand to help him unravel his cases. Both of these characters appeared in the 1957 TV series as well, and they'll also be present in HBO's reboot, albeit with a few modern twists. Della (Juliet Rylance) will be a bit more overtly feminist (although the character has always done more than keep Perry's office tidy), and Paul (Chalk) will now be a Black police officer struggling to do his job within the confines of a system built to work against him. 
Given that HBO is serving up a meaty origin story for Perry, it may seem like the show's writers are going completely off-book by making the story more Raymond Chandler than Gardner, but during day one of the ATX TV...From the Couch! Festival earlier this month, series co-creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald revealed they dug deep into Gardner's back catalog to fill out the character's history. "Once we made the decision to do a prequel, we started going through Gardner [work]," said Fitzgerald. "He was a maniac. This guy was writing what, 5,000 words a day, something crazy like that, 80 Perry Mason novels, tons of other novels. We started looking at all his stuff. He wrote for the cheap detective magazines. He has tons of contributions to those. That’s where we pulled." 

What Happened On The Original Perry Mason?

Perry Mason, the character, is best known for getting his innocent clients off at the last possible second by putting the guilty party on the stand and making them confess in front of the entire courtroom. It's a theatrical, cocky play, but watching the masterful attorney work his magic remains a draw. Every episode of Perry Mason follows a set formula: a crime occurs, Perry and his crew are enlisted to represent the presumed guilty, they investigate, the client is arrested and put on trial, and then, at the last possible moment, Perry forces a dramatic courtroom reveal of the true culprit. The show is a product of its time: there are no overarching plots, Perry's life outside the office is never explored, and each case is solved by the end of the hour. 
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Contemporary TV shows are all about keeping viewers coming back for more with cliffhangers or deft character work, but the original Perry Mason is a procedural in the purest sense. Each week there's an entirely new case, which makes it possible to drop in at any point in the series and know exactly what's going on. That may not sound like thrilling TV, but Burr is terrific in the leading role and watching him toy with his opposition during those final courtroom scenes is something to behold. It's nothing like what viewers will be getting from HBO, but if you want to check out the original to see what all the fuss was about, CBS All Access has seasons 1-8.  

What Is The New Perry Mason About?

Fans of the original Perry Mason will be shocked by HBO's incarnation. Despite the numerous books, radio plays, movies, and TV shows about the iconic character, he has no backstory. The new series plans to change that by giving Perry an actual origin story.
Not only will the character not be a lawyer just yet, he'll be a P.I. suffering from PTSD after serving in World War I. At the start of the series, he's taking on unsavory jobs like exposing affairs to earn money, and he's generally in a bad place with his mental health. It's at this juncture that he meets Lithgow's E.B. Jonathan and becomes embroiled in a kidnapping turned murder case that will lead him to Della, Paul, and presumably, his future as a top-notch defense attorney. Before he can become the talented lawyer of '50s fame, Perry will first have to navigate L.A.'s dark underbelly and grapple with his own haunted past. 
Ultimately, this take on the character is grim and full of graphic violence that never would have made it on air in the '50s. It's also largely kicking the courtroom drama to the curb in favor of having Perry work outside of the confines of the law. Basically, HBO has tossed out the playbook entirely in order to take viewers to a point in the future lawyer's life before the '50s TV series began.
Granddads of the world be warned: This is Perry Mason without the promise of a tidy ending, set in a world where nothing is resolved in a mere 45 minutes, and in which Perry himself is, at long last, set to become just as interesting as the cases he solves.

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