TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Sunday, HBO begins an eight-part mini-series that's a drastic revamp of an early TV classic. It's a new take on the courtroom series "Perry Mason." This time, the iconic defense attorney is played by Matthew Rhys from FX's "The Americans." Raymond Burr played the title role in the original series, which ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, says the original show introduced many unforgettable ingredients, beginning with its imposing, no-nonsense theme song. But, David says, this new version is very different and very good.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED STEINER'S "PARK AVENUE BEAT")
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: A lot about that original "Perry Mason" series, based on the novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, was no-nonsense. Perry was stern, stoic and unflappable. He and his legal team, secretary Della Street and private investigator Paul Drake, rarely were seen at home, only at work. And at work, because Gardner had been a lawyer for 20 years before writing the first of his 80 Perry Mason novels, the law was front and center. His first novel in the series, 1933's "The Case Of The Velvet Claws," had no courtroom scenes. But those quickly became prominent.
The first of six "Perry Mason" movies followed a year later in 1934, and then came radio. But it was the TV series, more than any other medium, that codified "Perry Mason" as the quintessential courtroom drama. Perry faced the same district attorney, Hamilton Burger, every time and almost never lost a case. And usually, the case was won when Perry got a witness to crack under cross-examination. But in that first generation of TV, that sort of reliable formula was comforting and very popular. And "Perry Mason" introduced and acclimated a nation of viewers, basically, to such previously exotic courtroom terms as objection, overruled and sidebar.
That was the old "Perry Mason." This new "Perry Mason," which begins Sunday on HBO, reimagines the original source material aggressively and effectively. Some changes are made to give the characters not only depth, but increased relevance for a new generation. And the changes all work well. Paul Drake, who was a white private eye in the old TV series, now is a married African American cop dealing with prejudice on and off the beat. He's played by Chris Chalk. And while Della Street, played by Juliet Rylance, is still a secretary and white, this time, she's a closeted lesbian and has aspirations for a courtroom career of her own.
When we meet her, she's working for a veteran attorney named E.B. Jonathan, who not only supports her initiative, but also tries to help Perry, the son of family friends. But this origin story of Perry Mason introduces us to a character virtually unfamiliar from the previous TV series. This new "Perry Mason" returns to the era in which Gardner wrote and set the original stories, the early 1930s. It also imagines Mason as anything but stoic or successful. He's living outside of Los Angeles on the rundown farm his parents left him when they died. The farm is in bad shape and so is Perry, which E.B., played by John Lithgow, points out when he visits Perry to offer him some potentially lucrative private eye work.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PERRY MASON ")
JOHN LITHGOW: (As E.B.) At some point, you got to admit this isn't working out.
MATTHEW RHYS: (As Perry) What do you mean?
LITHGOW: (As E.B.) Let me speak for the dead and say your parents didn't want this for you.
RHYS: (As Perry) The farm's still here.
LITHGOW: (As E.B.) You've got pans on their bed.
RHYS: (As Perry) What do you want, E.B.?
LITHGOW: (As E.B.) Herman Baggerly called me last night. I called you. You don't answer.
RHYS: (As Perry) Who's Herman Baggerly?
LITHGOW: (As E.B.) Major player, Boyle - lumber, real estate, one of the fattest bank accounts in the city.
RHYS: (As Perry) What's he doing with you, then?
LITHGOW: (As E.B.) I've helped him in the past - certain business matters which require discretion and finesse.
RHYS: (As Perry) Yeah, 20 bucks a billable hour?
LITHGOW: (As E.B.) Well, a man has to eat. I'd say we both understand that.
RHYS: (As Perry) And you need me why, E.B.?
LITHGOW: (As E.B.) Because some friend of his is in trouble, the police are involved and you're good at your job - 3 p.m. at my office.
BIANCULLI: So as this "Perry Mason" drama begins, its hero is a gumshoe, not a lawyer. But over the course of these eight episodes, as the central murder case develops and comes to trial, the stars begin to align. That goes for the supporting players of this series, as well as for the courtroom destiny of the title character. Matthew Rhys plays both extremes of his Perry Mason perfectly - the brooding, nonconformist of so many film noirs, as well as the emotional orator of those stirring summations to the jury.
This HBO reboot's creators, Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones, take their time guiding Perry on his new career path, but it's time well-spent. If there's any wasted motion, it's regarding the primary mystery centered on a popular radio evangelist played by Tatiana Maslany from "Orphan Black." She's good. But the pace of her segment is a bit too leisurely and some are unnecessary. But on the flip side, the pace of this "Perry Mason" allows for some developments, side trips and surprises that make it a delight. Yes, there is a Hamilton Burger sighting before the eight hours are over. And it's another inspired piece of revisionist history.
And at the very end of these eight hours, Perry Mason is about to be introduced to a woman calling herself Eve Griffin (ph), who was the name of the mystery woman in that first Erle Stanley Gardner novel, "The Case Of The Velvet Claws." So this new HBO "Perry Mason" manages not only to concoct an eight-hour origin story, but to end at the very beginning of the original tales, which means, I hope, we'll soon be treated to some more.
GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and professor of TV Studies at Rowan University. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Eve Ewing, the author of a book about racial inequality in the Chicago schools and a book of poems called "1919," about the 1919 riots in Chicago after a black youth swimming in Lake Michigan was stoned by white people and drowned, or our interview with Michael Osterholm about where we are now in the pandemic and what to expect in this next phase, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.