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'Perry Mason' review: Origin story doesn't deliver

HBO's drama series "Perry Mason" stars Matthew Rhys.

HBO's drama series "Perry Mason" stars Matthew Rhys. Credit: HBO/Merrick Morton

SERIES "Perry Mason"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT It's 1932 and Los Angeles is booming, but private eye Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) is a few bucks away from living on the street. Then he gets a call from prominent attorney Elias Birchard "E.B." Jonathan (John Lithgow) who wants him to investigate the particularly brutal murder of a kidnapped baby. The child's parents have ties to a revivalist church, Radiant Assembly of God, run by Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany). "E.B." wants Perry to get to the truth of the murder because he knows the police won't. However, there is one honest street cop, as it turns out: Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who uncovers some clues at another murder scene that could help Mason.

This eight-parter is based on the character from the Erle Stanley Gardner novels — not the more famous courtroom Perry, however. 

MY SAY Congrats. You are now reading a review by someone who has seen the first five episodes of perhaps the most anticipated reboot of 2020. Exciting, right? Not for the guy who watched them — still staring blankly at his screen which may be blank or just the sixth episode. The many "whys," meanwhile, pile up: 

 Why "Perry Mason?" Why now? Why ever

 This was in fact to be the pet project of "True Detective" creator Nic Pizzolatto before he was called away to develop another "TD," or at least that's the official account. Two veteran TV writers and an esteemed director (Massapequa-raised Tim Van Patten, "The Sopranos," "Boardwalk Empire")  stepped in, giving this "Perry" a sheen of slick professionalism along with some impeccable period touches.

But that's about all. As with any salvage operation, they did the best with what they got — not all that much, judging from these episodes.

 So why? A primer for anyone under the age of 60 might help. Gardner, once the world's bestselling mystery writer, let CBS turn his most famous creation into the courtroom potboiler of the late '50s and '60s (and '80s TV movies), featuring both a performance (by Raymond Burr) and theme song (by Fred Steiner) that have taken up permanent residence in the memories of a generation of viewers. "Perry Mason" was sheer mastery of the form, also ephemera designed for quick resolution, quick consumption.

Not this "Perry Mason," which is an origin story that mostly overlooks what that story would eventually become. Instead, Rhys' Perry is a luckless private eye who fortifies himself with whiskey — don't they all? — and a sense of righteousness (that, too.) He's an L.A. Noir character caught up in an L.A. Noir world — those grimy Depression-era streets, the dirty cops, the corrupt patricians, the nihilism rendered in smoky shades of umber. Maslany's faith healer-revivalist Sister Alice promises a break from formula, except that her story over the early episodes doesn't come into focus either. 

Chalk's Paul Drake, however, is an effective twist on a well-known character (played by William Hopper in the CBS series). As a black cop confronting both racism and institutional corruption, you suspect he and Perry will eventually break this case wide-open but you know he'll confront far greater odds, assuming he survives. Drake is easily the better story here, the more compelling character. When he's on-screen, he roots what is otherwise a mundane period piece in the right-here-right-now. 

Except he's not on all that much, and those survival odds could be long ones.

So we're left with that period piece — a familiar nostalgia trip that we've been on before and know where we'll probably end up. 

BOTTOM LINE A dull slog through L.A. noir. 

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