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Review: HBO re-imagines a scruffier 'Perry Mason'

Matthew Rhys stars as the famous character in this premium cable origin story

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

“Perry Mason” was the 1950s TV legal drama that spawned a thousand other legal dramas.

So of course in the new HBO incarnation of "Perry Mason" our hero isn’t even a lawyer, at least not at the beginning. Gotta shake things up. Besides, it’s unlikely anyone under 50 even knows who Perry Mason is.

Matthew Rhys in "Perry Mason."

In this telling, Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys from “The Americans”) is a down-and-out private detective in 1932 Hollywood. He’s still shell-shocked and self-loathing from his time on World War I battlefields. He’s got a tiny camera that he uses to catch cheating husbands and such.

He’s unshaven and rumpled. He looks like he gets beat up a lot because he does. This is our hero? Well, yes, in a typically anti-heroic way.

Perry works regularly for the lawyer E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow in full bluster). When E.B. takes on the defense of Matthew Dodson (Nate Corddry), a father accused of kidnapping his own baby son, Perry finds himself embroiled in one of those grotesque “Chinatown”-style early L.A. mysteries.

Someone, it seems, sewed the dead child’s eyes open to make it appear alive. Ah, there’s the sort of twisted image a modern-day premium cable series can rely on, which it does again and again.

Matthew and his stricken wife, Emily (Gayle Rankin in what should be a breakout role) belong to one of those newfangled radio-friendly cult churches that early Hollywood seemed to inspire. This one’s led by Sister Alice (usually reliable Tatiana Maslany, terribly miscast), who heals the infirm and talks to God and all that stuff under the watchful guidance of her fiscally minded mother (Lily Taylor).

So the cult/church finances Matthew’s defense and becomes Perry’s employer.

Perry, by the way, lives in a run-down dairy farm next to an airfield run by his older Latin lover (an earthy Veronica Falcon) because you always want to pack as much as you can into a premium cable series; people are paying money for this!

As HBO shows go, “Perry Mason” most resembles a far more shallow “Boardwalk Empire,” except you get L.A. instead of Atlantic City along with a slight time shift. But “Mason” tends to overdo the obvious. “Boardwalk” might have had a dog eating garbage off its mean streets, but in Perry’s world the dog only has three legs. Ugh.

In real life it’s 2020, though, not 1932, so the show touches on requisite hot spots. There’s a racial component as Perry drags a black street cop (Chris Chalk) into things and of course certain traditional Mason characters turn out to be gay, a modern must.

This is a mystery, but the whodunit question gets answered early on, so most of the eight episodes have to do with the howdunit and whydunit questions, which receive the sort of fuzzy answers premium cable shows love. More important is Perry Mason’s growth from semi-scummy schlub to Our Hero.

Yes, this is in essence an origins story. Like “Spider-Man,” except without the web-slinging and having been done three times in the past 20 years.

Strained at times, wandering at others, “Perry Mason” finds its footing eventually and by its end you may want to watch a second season even as you hope it’s better than the first.

“Perry Mason”

GRADE: B-

9 p.m. Sunday

HBO

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News.