Cops Is History, Long Live the Detective Show

6 minute read

When HBO announced plans to revive the ur-lawyer show Perry Mason, it sounded like a joke. Sure, now that TV execs are bringing back everything from Full House to Twin Peaks, why not do a gritty reboot of your grandparents’ favorite procedural? What’s next: a steamy Diagnosis: Murder from the Outlander team? A swole millennial Matlock on the CW? Name recognition aside, was there even a point in reanimating author Erle Stanley Gardner’s canonically nondescript Mason—a brilliant defense attorney with no backstory and few qualities outside the courtroom?

Few would’ve predicted that the new Perry Mason, debuting June 21, would turn out to be so timely. As years of true-crime mania have coincided with an increasingly widespread awareness of the violence police departments across America have inflicted on black communities, the level of cognitive dissonance required to enjoy cop shows has become prohibitive. In recent weeks—as protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police have spread around the globe, culminating in that city’s council voting to disband the force—critics have lamented the prevalence of television that glorifies cops. Now, Paramount Network has canceled reality stalwart Cops, which has faced criticism over its depiction of black people for much of its 31-year run. And A&E pulled a similar unscripted series, Live PD, from its schedule in early June before canceling it permanently.

Enter Perry Mason, a crime solver who routinely overcomes police incompetence (or worse) to extract confessions from real murderers and free those who’ve been wrongfully accused. It’s the ideal show for right now—at least to the extent that yet another drama about a self-destructive white guy who’s great at his job can be.

With so little to draw from on the page, screen personifications of Gardner’s Depression-era character—like superheroes, fairy-tale princesses and each generation’s James Bond—tend to reflect the ideals of their time. In the iconic drama that ran on CBS between 1957 and 1966, Raymond Burr’s broad shoulders filled out the empty suit. His Mason was an all-American defender with a square jaw, easy confidence and a preternatural command of the courtroom. Though the show rarely depicted his life outside the office, an ongoing flirtation with his girl Friday, Della Street (Barbara Hale), confirmed his masculinity.

Tatiana Maslany in 'Perry Mason'Merrick Morton/HBO

In keeping with our contemporary preference for more complex, troubled heroes—and despite the show’s period setting, in 1930s Los Angeles—the new Mason is a scruffy drinker played by The Americans breakout Matthew Rhys. When we meet him, he’s not an attorney but a low-rent P.I. wrestling with trauma from a divorce and the World War I trenches, who makes his living snapping photos of Hollywood stars in compromising positions. When his onetime mentor, the aging lawyer E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), enlists his aid in the high-profile case of Emily and Matthew Dodson (Gayle Rankin and Nate Corddry), parents who find their baby son Charlie dead after a kidnapping, Mason is drawn into a legal saga that becomes a sort of origin story.

From a narrative standpoint, Perry Mason isn’t quite top-shelf HBO. In the spirit of the endearingly contrived original series, where Mason regularly got culprits to confess under oath, there are plot holes, unbelievable twists, speeches that sound great but raise more questions than they answer. Fans of the original’s case-of-the-week format may not be the only viewers frustrated by the slow pace of this serialized reboot. But Rhys leads a stellar cast. Along with Lithgow and Rankin (GLOW’s wonderful wolf girl), there’s Tatiana Maslany as an inscrutable, over-the-top evangelist with a national following that includes the Dodsons; Gotham alum Chris Chalk as a lonely black cop on an overwhelmingly white force; and Juliet Rylance (The Knick) as a Della with secrets of her own. And though it doesn’t necessarily take place in a better world than the one we live in, the show’s stylish execution of noir genre tropes and lush, lonely Edward Hopper screenscapes make for an escapist treat.

Beyond its simple pleasures, Perry Mason is a reminder that police don’t have to be the focus—much less the heroes—of every whodunit. Private and amateur detectives, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe to Murder, She Wrote’s mystery-author lead Jessica Fletcher. These outsiders can be uniquely subversive characters, compensating for the failures of law enforcement and exposing systemic corruption. In tandem with serving clients, female PIs like Veronica Mars and Jessica Jones have wrestled with their own rapists and abusers; their true-crime counterparts are Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub of Netflix docuseries The Keepers, tenacious retirees probing sexual exploitation and murder at the Catholic high school they attended decades earlier. The original Shaft movies, which cast Richard Roundtree as the impossibly cool private eye, challenged mainstream, white notions of the police as good guys and Black Power groups as dangerous others.

Chris Chalk as Paul Drake in 'Perry Mason'Merrick Morton/HBO

Perry Mason wasn’t a polemical show in the ’50s, but the sheer frequency with which it found Mason out-sleuthing police and the DA also subtly undermined the perception that people in positions of authority are always right. The new series, which is political without being pedantic, illustrates how systemic corruption can empower a police force’s individual bad apples. In Chalk’s character Paul Drake, a perceptive investigator who’s barred from becoming a detective because he’s black, we see how white cops’ bullying can make even minority officers with good intentions complicit in unspeakable abuses of power.

Drake’s story line suggests that something would be lost if TV creators never cast any police character in a sympathetic light. Like the gold standard of cop shows, The Wire, and Unbelievable, the excellent, based-on-a-true-story miniseries about two female police detectives who rescue a serial rape investigation from their male colleagues’ apathy and incompetence, Perry Mason is careful to situate its righteous officer within a structure that is deeply broken. Unlike those predecessors, however, it doesn’t center police to an extent that their humanity seems to counterbalance the corruption around them.

Americans who watched the video of Derek Chauvin crush Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes as his partner and two rookies did nothing—and, even more recently, witnessed two Buffalo cops shoving 75-year-old Martin Gugino to the ground as a line of fellow officers kept walking—have reason to doubt the influence of “good apples.” That doesn’t mean crime shows have to die. TV needn’t always be as surgical in its critiques of law enforcement as masterpieces like Watchmen, either (Perry Mason isn’t). It just has to stop pumping out cheerful propaganda for an institution that deserves our scrutiny.

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