The original “Perry Mason” TV series starring Raymond Burr premiered in 1957 and ran for nearly a decade. As courtroom dramas go, it’s an early classic that put a criminal defense attorney center stage. We haven’t seen much of that lately; cops and prosecutors predominate at the moment. So when HBO rebooted “Perry Mason” back in 2020 with Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) in the title role, I was curious. Set in the early 1930s and focused on Perry Mason’s origin story, I found those eight episodes to be a hard-boiled slog with glimmers of potential. The series is back for a second season — eight more episodes spanning a single case — this time with new showrunners behind the scenes (Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, known for their work on Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick”). It is much improved on all fronts.
The 21st century incarnation of the show is more noir than procedural, but there’s something about its stylistic approach that feels set off by air quotes. (If you were hoping for a more traditional-minded legal drama, CBS is looking to bring “Matlock” back next season with Kathy Bates in the title role.)
A lot of time is given to the initial setup reintroducing us to Perry, who is now a fully fledged lawyer. A milkman pulls up outside his building (a nod perhaps to his family’s old dairy farm) and the camera follows as the driver carries his deliveries inside and deposits them in the boxes outside each apartment. And then, finally, Perry opens his door in a rumpled undershirt and boxer shorts and generally looking worse for wear. He grabs a bottle of milk and takes a swig.
This is all about establishing the show’s tone and mood, and in a way it’s telling viewers how to watch: With patience. That pays off largely because the show doesn’t feel quite so glum this time out, even if Perry remains a man begrudgingly participating in life and eluding responsibilities thrust on him until finally (long resigned sigh from Perry) a wrong must be righted.
The team is rounded out by aspiring attorney Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and a freelance private investigator, the wiley Paul Drake (Chris Chalk).
And so, the case: A rich ne’er-do-well who wants to bring a Major League Baseball team to Los Angeles is found dead in his car, a gunshot to his left eye. The police arrest a pair of Mexican American brothers for the murder (Peter Mendoza as the stoical older one, Fabrizio Guido as the more emotionally vulnerable younger one) and the deck looks stacked against them until Perry & Co. decide to investigate further.
The accused are pawns in a story of greed and shifting alliances. Corruption begets violence and if a few lives need to be sacrificed in the name of business? Way it goes. Someone somewhere is always opportunistic. Maybe it’s the dead man’s father, a coldblooded sort played by “Sound of Metal’s” Paul Raci. Maybe it’s the slippery heiress played by Hope Davis. Maybe it’s various dirty political forces that are mixed in as well.
Justice is an illusion, the glib district attorney (Justin Kirk) says to Perry over drinks. It doesn’t matter that the system is a farce and amoral as hell. Perry is unimpressed: “Who the (expletive) wants to be any part of that?” Unlike the Raymond Burr version, this Perry will toss an f-bomb when he’s sufficiently annoyed or disgusted.
Season 2 is strongest when the focus is on the case itself, and especially when we get to see Paul in action. Chalk is so good in the role, thoughtful but giving very little away; both wary and wry. He’s the kind of investigator who comes up with a deceptively simple and clever way of shooting surveillance photos in a hotel lobby with the help of his wife (Diarra Kilpatrick), who is his sounding board and occasional unofficial partner on stakeouts. Their dynamic is rich and developed. These are people with their own lives and concerns outside of Perry’s orbit and frankly I’d watch a series that rearranged things so that Paul was at the story’s center.
Things peter out, though, every time the action shifts to Perry and Della’s respective love interests. The scenes that don’t flesh things out so much as gum up the story’s momentum. Della in particular is not a well-drawn character. She maintains a cheery friendship with the DA despite being professional antagonists; both are keeping their sexualities under wraps and have a mutually beneficial understanding in that regard. But what does she value in a larger sense? She’s not cynical enough to run roughshod over the underdog, but she’s also not ethical enough to have more than a shrugging concern about doing the bidding of a cruel grocer they take on as a client to pay the bills. She’s not as nihilistic as Perry, she has real ambitions — but for what exactly? She has no point of view. But she does a great cross examination in the courtroom, I’ll give her that.
Elegantly grizzled as the show may be, I actually appreciate the rare moments of earnestness. “When you build the whole damn place you get to make up the whole damn rule book,” the judge bluntly informs Perry about the balance of power between the haves and the have nots.
That’s what makes it so hard to survive in this town, Perry responds. “So few people have control over their fate. So as you dangle, you just hope that whoever’s got you out there will be compassionate.”
“Perry Mason” — 2.5 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: 8 p.m. Mondays on HBO (and streaming on HBO Max)
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic