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Stellar Acting Keeps Season Two of Perry Mason Afloat

“This is not your father’s Perry Mason.” So says Matthew Rhys, who stars as the famous defense attorney, in a recent interview about the second season of the rebooted legal drama. And he’s right. As written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler for HBO, the guilty don’t confess on the stand, there’s no “case of the week” structure to the storytelling. And after a slow-to-start first season, the new “Perry Mason” seems to have finally found its footing. Even when the storytelling starts to meander, the ensemble cast—filled with heavy hitters from film, TV, and stage—manages to keep the plates in the air.

We begin with Mason (Rhys), now a practicing lawyer, albeit not a thriving one, working with Della Street (a terrific Juliet Rylance) as his de facto partner. Season One gave us insight into the effects of World War I PTSD on a man struggling to find his place in the world; this time, it’s his continued disgust with the justice system and regrets about Emily Dodson, the woman he defended in Season One, that’s keeping him up at night. It’s a testament to Rhys' terrific acting chops that none of his malaise feels familiar. A lesser actor would’ve repeated the same body language from previous seasons, but Rhys creates shading: his struggle is internal, something he is only slowly sharing with others, and the pain that shadows his face when he thinks about his estranged son is very different from the anguish he feels when he witnesses injustice. It’s not all darkness and desolation for Perry this season, either. He strikes up a sweet romance with his son’s teacher Ginny Aimes (a welcome and charming Katherine Waterston), but the relationship, like all his bonds with other people, is tested by his profession. 

If this isn’t your father’s Perry Mason, then it sure as hell ain’t his Della Street, either. The series’ writers and showrunners, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler co-created “The Knick,” in which Rylance starred, and you can always tell when writers are familiar with what an actor can do. After pointedly hiring a secretary to replace, well, herself, Della quickly establishes that her legal instincts are even keener than Mason’s. A full-time law school student, Della is also navigating a new relationship with writer Anita St. Pierre (a luminous, crackling Jen Tullock) while becoming Perry’s equal in court and their offices. Rylance brings to mind a strident confidence a la “His Girl Friday,” but her surety is tempered with an outward tranquility. Because she is concealing her sexuality and juggling the weight of being the only female attorney she knows, Della only breaks down when alone. Rylance’s scenes with Tullock are among the best in the season because they both allow for joy and provide a reprieve from the grim crime that takes center stage.

Said grim crime, without giving anything away, involves Brooks McCutcheon (an appropriately handsome/despicable Tommy Dewey), a failson who has done any number of legal and illegal things to gain the approval of Lydell (Paul Raci, possibly having more fun than anyone else), his surly oil baron father. Brooks’s newest bright idea is to give LA its own baseball team, and he has cheerfully evicted Mexican immigrants from their homes in order to build a stadium. In transposing the 1950s-era Chavez Ravine evictions—which were conducted to build what is now Dodger Stadium—to the 1930s, Amiel and Begler have been unable to avoid what I call the “Chinatown” trap. The cinematic language used for film/TV about land repossession and capitalist greed in LA all lead back to Roman Polanski’s classic in terms of style and structure, but that isn’t a bad thing here. Brooks is in over his head, Lydell is unimpressed, and the bill for that comes due when two Mexican-American brothers, Mateo (Peter Mendoza) and Rafael (Fabrizio Guido), get caught up in their web.

Rounding out the cast is Paul Drake (a wonderful Chris Chalk), the ex-cop who used to work as an investigator for Mason until work ran dry. As a result, he and his wife Clara (Diarra Kilpatrick)—who might have the best-written marriage on television—have moved in with her brother and his family. Chalk’s role has fortunately been expanded this season. Drake is battling constant racism, but his own goals and ideals, especially when they clash with each other, create localized conflict too. It’s lovely to see Chalk as an equal asset in Mason’s office, and the trio of Perry, Paul, and Della sparkles when they work as a team. Shea Whigham returns as Pete Strickland, Mason’s former investigator, now working full-time for the district attorney’s office. He does the bidding of an ambitious son-of-a-bitch named Thomas Milligan (Mark O’Brien), right-hand man to DA Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk). Whigham, whom I’ve had the pleasure to interview, does the most by doing very little. Strickland holds his cards close to his chest, and as long as he’s feeding his kids he’s not too worried about the ethics of his job. But when the crisis of conscience catches up with Pete, Whigham shines, his body language and diction desperate to hold onto a cool, diffident Strickland, and unable to do so. I wish Rhys and Whigham had had more scenes together, but their characters are mostly at odds this season. When the two do get a two-hander scene, though, it’s magical. Give them their own buddy comedy already. Kirk, a criminally underrated actor, is also exemplary this season, finding moving notes of dignity and desperation in Burger’s affect. 

If there is a significant flaw this season, it’s the ambitious scale of the writing. Amiel and Begler, along with their writers’ room, are trying to loosen up the bounds of the story (the pair took over from Season One showrunners Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald) and characterization. This is a good thing in theory because, given the intense pro-police and DA bias of most high-profile legal dramas, it’s refreshing to see the justice system seen for the racist, sexist, and classist sham it is and always has been. Mason is wallowing a little less this season, letting Della and Ginny see some of his pain, but he retains a pessimistic righteousness essential to this version of Perry Mason. This story won’t work, in the year of our lord 2023, if someone like Perry believes fully in the system. He’s fighting for his clients just as much as he’s fighting the system. There are a few plot points that don’t get as much airtime as they should, but it helps that the ensemble cast sticks the landing with care. If only other remakes of existing intellectual property could all be this interesting. 

Full season screened for review. Season two of "Perry Mason" premieres on March 6th.

Nandini Balial

Nandini Balial is a film and TV critic, essayist, and interviewer.

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