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Series / Perry Mason (2020)

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"The way I see it, there's what's legal... and there's what's right."

Perry Mason is a 2020 TV series based on the iconic character of the same name created by Erle Stanley Gardner. The show was created by Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald and produced by Robert Downey Jr.. It stars Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason, Juliet Rylance as Della Street, and Chris Chalk as Paul Drake. Tatiana Maslany plays Sister Alice, a charismatic evangelical minister; Shea Whigham plays Pete Strickland, Perry's partner in a private detective business; John Lithgow appears as E.B. Jonathan, a lawyer who employs Perry as a private detective.

Serving as an Origin Story to the novels, this series takes place in Los Angeles in 1932, a world caught up in the wealth of the growing motion picture industry, an oil boom, the upcoming Olympics, and the rise of a Christian Revival movement. In the midst of this Perry Mason is working as the PI to Crusading Lawyer Elias Birchard 'E.B.' Jonathan (Lithgow). Perry finds himself caught in the case of a lifetime: infant Charlie Dodson is kidnapped for ransom and murdered. His mother Emily is arrested and charged with complicity in her son's kidnapping. The Charlie Dodson case becomes a major scandal that threatens to shake the city and its power structure to the core.


Other characters include Stephen Root as District Attorney Barnes, Lili Taylor as Sister Alice's mother Birdy, and Gretchen Mol as Perry's ex-wife Linda.

The series premiered on both HBO and HBO Max on June 21, 2020. A second season has been ordered, with Katherine Waterston joining the cast.

Tropes associated with this series include:

  • Accidental Murder: Charlie Dodson's death turns out to be this, since his kidnappers brought in a woman who was addicted to heroin as a wet nurse and she passed it to him in her milk, causing respiratory failure.
  • Adaptation Expansion: There was no exploration of Mason's background in the novels or previous TV series, and this show tries to fill in the gaps:
    • As the series begins, Mason is not yet a lawyer, but works as a PI for a well-regarded LA attorney.
    • Paul Drake is an LAPD officer, rather than Mason's PI.
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: In this series, Mason is a World War I veteran with a failed marriage who rarely gets to see his son. He drinks heavily, he's often disheveled, his family dairy farm is on its last legs—this series is way more angsty than earlier adaptations of the character.
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  • Adaptational Sexuality: Della is portrayed as a closeted lesbian here, who secretly has a girlfriend. In the original books and later, she is shown having significant sexual tension with Perry.
  • Age-Gap Romance: When Della makes fun of Burger for eyeing a younger man, Burger points out the age gap between her and Hazel. There is a 7-year difference in the actresses' ages.
  • The Alleged Car: Perry's aging former milk van he uses to get around.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The first season plays as an Origin Story in which Perry becomes a lawyer. The first-season finale has a woman named Eva Griffin come into Perry's office and ask for his help. "Eva Griffin" was the name of Perry's client from the first ever Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: While the show may seem like it’s glossing over its Depression-era setting, Southern California was able to weather the brunt of the calamity much better than other parts of the country.
  • Back from the Dead: Sister Alice claims she can do this and bring back Charlie Dodson. Later she stages a dramatic display of the feat complete with revealing an empty coffin. Subverted however when it's revealed the baby who's found nearby is not him, but someone else, with black hair, brown eyes (Charlie's eyes were blue, his hair blond) and much smaller, with shorter limbs. Even so, his mother goes with it, perhaps because she's so desperate to have her son back.
  • The Beard: Della (who's a lesbian) pretends to date Burger (a gay man), which serves as cover for them both.
  • Blackmail: E.B. is blackmailed by prosecutor Maynard Barnes to lose the case with information that could get him disbarred (it indicates he embezzled his clients' money in the past). He kills himself rather than comply.
  • Blackmail Backfire: When Perry's stakeout of Chubby Carmichael results in pictures of Chubby not just with some random babe, but with an up-and-coming star at the studio, Perry ups his fee from the agreed-upon $200 to $600. The studio boss responds by paying Perry $1 and having his goons burn Perry's chest with the red-hot barrel of a gun.
    Perry: I overplayed it.
  • Bribe Backfire: Ennis tries to bribe Pete with a prostitute. Pete is so offended that he offers to keep investigating even though Perry cannot pay him.
  • Broken Pedestal: After E.B. kills himself, both Perry and Della are forced to admit that their boss and mentor was a very flawed man.
  • Bullying the Dragon: Perry has a habit of antagonizing people more powerful than him. He tries to blackmail the head of a movie studio and mouths off to cops.
  • Call-Back: The thread that Perry retrieved from the eyelid of poor little Charlie Dodson becomes a literal loose thread, as he never does trace it down and it plays no part of the investigation. But in the last scene of the first season, he takes the thread out of the matchbox and contemplates it, before blowing it away as he stands on a cliff in Carmel-by-the-sea.
  • Call It Karma: A movie studio hires Perry to find proof that an actor in decline is breaking his "moral clause", in order to allow them to cancel his contract. Perry finds that he is sleeping with their new upcoming actress, and demands more money for not releasing the photos and ruining her reputation.
  • Cassandra Truth: Mason's Mexican lover tells him that she wants to buy his house and expand the airfield, which he dismisses because he doesn't want to sell. In the end of the first season, she exploits his unpaid property taxes and buys the land out from under him. She then reminds him that he didn't heed her warnings.
  • Closest Thing We Got: Perry becomes a lawyer because Emily needs a defense attorney that believes in her innocence and cannot be intimidated or bribed by District Attorney Barnes. That disqualifies most of the lawyers in Los Angeles and the others do not want the case. Perry has no legal experience, but the prosecution's case is weak and the case will be decided by how passionate and persuasive the lawyers will be. Perry is extremely passionate about doing what is right and he can make an really inspiring speech if he needs to.
  • Corrupt Church: It gradually becomes clear over the course of Season 1 that Sister Alice's church is a deeply corrupt money-laundering scheme, although Sister Alice appears to not realize this. Various church elders are embezzling money or engaging in shady business deals or fraudulent real estate transactions. Their previous accountant testifies that this started because the church had taken on too much debt and the elders resorted to illegal activities to cover them. When the attention of authorities starts getting uncomfortable, Sister Alice's mom Birdy packs some bags and suggests that she and Alice go on the lam. Birdy eventually starts a new church in another town, while Alice starts an entirely new life.
  • Darker and Edgier: In spite of being based on a relatively clean franchise that includes a long-running network television series, this is one of HBO's darkest series to date, with scenes of brutal violence and murders, mutilated corpses and graphic sex, a main character committing suicide, and society at large being described as corrupt and oppressive. The genre is Film Noir rather than that of the original franchise. Your grandpa's Perry Mason this is not!
  • Death of a Child: The first scene of the first episode has a couple paying off a ransom and collecting their kidnapped child, only to find that the baby is dead.
  • Defective Detective: Perry is a Shell-Shocked Veteran who wears a Perma-Stubble Beard of Sorrow while working as a private investigator. He's divorced and is a Disappeared Dad to his son. Only once he becomes a lawyer does he start to shape up.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • The series explicitly shows racism in the early 1930s. Drake laments that even as a black police officer, he's still lower on the social ladder than a white murderer.
    • Della has to stay in the closet about being lesbian due to homophobia. She and her girlfriend maintain separate rooms at their boarding house and can only occasionally spend the night with each other, in spite of being in a monogamous relationship. Hamilton Burger, being gay, also must keep this hidden. As a cover, they pretend they're dating.
    • In the first episode, Perry starts smoking in the Dodsons’ house without asking permission, and when Mrs. Dodson catches him, she’s not mad and he even offers her a cigarette. Nowadays, smoking in a stranger’s house without permission would often get you thrown out.
    • The Polish-American conspirators in the kidnapping are repeatedly referred to as "Polacks," even by Mason. In modern times, the word is considered a slur.
    • In 1932, Prohibition is still technically on the books, though most people seem to have no difficulty drinking in public. When confronted for having a hidden flask, Mason correctly notes that it's not illegal to drink alcohol, just produce, transport or sell it. FDR would have just been elected into the presidency this year on a campaign promise of repealing Prohibition, which he did the next year.
  • Detective Mole: Detective Ennis, one of the two LAPD cops on the kidnapping-murder case, is one of the kidnappers. He is also the murderer of the other three kidnappers, which he pins on fellow kidnapper George Gannon.
  • Dirty Business: Perry is running out of options and with Emily's life at stake, he convinces Pete to bribe a juror. Pete acknowledges that it was necessary so that justice could prevail, but he still feels really bad about having done so, and it is one of the reasons why he decides to not work for Perry as an investigator.
  • Dirty Cop:
    • Ennis and Holcomb are blatantly dirty. They tamper with evidence or even engage in regular crimes. It's made clear most of the LAPD qualify, with honest cops such as Drake an exception.
    • Pete used to be a vice cop which means that he was corrupt to some degree. He clearly did not like that part of his job and despises corrupt cops like Ennis and Holcomb.
  • Disappeared Dad: Perry is largely absent in his son's life, causing his ex-wife to flatly tell him he isn't really a father. His son is closer with his stepfather as a result by far. Perry does appear to feel bad about this, but only sees him rarely.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Perry and Pete discover that one of the kidnappers appears to have shot himself in remorse. However, further investigation reveals that the suicide was staged.
    • E.B. gasses himself after being blackmailed to lose the case by Maynard Barnes.
  • Enemy Mine: Hamilton Burger is the Deputy District Attorney which would normally put him on the opposite side of Mason and the defense team. However, Burger does not like his boss and would love to have his job. He helps Mason because if Mason wins the Dodson case it is likely to get District Attorney Barnes fired.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Lupe is first seen having loud and passionate sex with Perry, then getting dressed and casually stating she'd rather sleep in her own bed. She's an independent, Spicy Latina who is certainly not in love with Perry.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Della is desperate to find an honest replacement lawyer for Emily and bemoans to Perry the miscarriage of justice that is being perpetuated. Perry goes on a rant about how the prosecution has no real case and is trying to get a jury to convict an innocent woman of a horrible crime simply because she had en ethical lapse. Della realizes that Perry just made the perfect opening statement and decides that their only option is to make Perry a lawyer.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Murderous corrupt cop Ennis has a wife as well as a daughter with polio.
  • Evil Stole My Faith: When Sister Alice tells Perry in "Chapter 3" that God is with him, Perry shoots back "God left me in France", an obvious reference to the horrors he saw in World War I.
  • Face of a Thug: Ennis, the murderous corrupt cop, has a flat nose and weathered face. When describing him, Mason notes his "beady eyes."
  • Fake Faith Healer: Sister Alice is accused of this by dissident former church members, as one wheelchair-using man whom she "healed" was only temporarily recovered before relapsing (depending on what his condition is, it might have been a placebo effect, which is known to happen from such "healings"-it's not said he's paralyzed).
  • Fan Disservice: Perry's first surveillance job in the first episode ends with an enraged, morbidly obese, completely naked man chasing Perry back to his car.
  • Foreshadowing: In an early episode, E.B. looks at the jury and ruminates that he only needs to convince one of the jurors, while the prosecution needs all of them. In the end, Mason bribes a juror to rule in his favor and effect a mistrial, though he actually convinced two more himself.
  • Friendly Local Chinatown: The Los Angeles Chinatown is home to a bordello that pays kickbacks to the LAPD.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Perry, talking about the peculiarities of the Dodson kidnapping, says, "It's queer from both sides."
  • The Heretic: Sister Alice is denounced by many of her own congregation after claiming she will raise little Charlie from the dead, feeling this is blasphemy. They even split off to form their own church and say they won't come back until she is brought down by failure or recants.
  • Hollywood Law: In the final episode of the first season, Mason delivers his closing arguments for the defense, and then the district attorney gives his closing arguments for the prosecution. In real life, the prosecution always speaks first.
  • Horrible Hollywood: When not working for E.B., Mason follows Hollywood starlets to get lurid photos to sell to tabloids. The studio executives are not above using hired muscle to rough people up.
  • In Name Only: Zig-Zagged. The series starts out with Perry as a Film Noir P.I. and not even in law school. However, halfway through season 1, he has to step in and defend their client after E.B. dies and no other trustworthy lawyer will take up the case. A letter is faked that makes it look like he apprenticed to E.B. for months. He then passes the bar exam and is sworn in as a lawyer.
  • Indy Ploy:
    • Perry figures out that George Gannon was murdered, but the coroner is in the pocket of the LAPD and ruled the death a suicide. What to do? Steal the body, and leave it on a golf course in an area where it will go to Perry's coroner friend Virgil, who will conduct a second, honest autopsy.
    • E.B.'s suicide leaves Emily without a lawyer. What to do? Make Perry her lawyer. How to do that? Fake a letter indicating that E.B. was mentoring Perry to become a lawyer, then get someone to help Perry cheat on the bar exam. Poof, he's a lawyer.
  • Internal Deconstruction: The series portrays Perry Mason as he would be in the real world. His impulsive and overly theatrical tendencies do more damage than good and the people around him have to stop him from fully self-destructing.
  • Jury and Witness Tampering: In "Chapter 8", Pete bribes a juror to get Emily a mistrial. It turns out to not be necessary, as Perry managed to convince two other jurors to vote for acquittal.
  • Karma Houdini: Holcomb never faces any consequences for his many crimes (that ranged from tampering with evidence to murder).
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: It looks like Ennis will escape any punishment for his many crimes. He is then murdered on Holcomb's orders.
  • Kick the Dog: District Attorney Barnes is revealed to be an asshole when he rudely tells a man in the courthouse washroom to get the hell out. When the man dutifully makes a beeline for the door, Barnes mockingly chides him for not washing his hands. It's a pointless act of bullying.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Della and her girlfriend Hazel are both quite feminine, and it's not obvious that they're lesbians until they're shown in bed with each other.
  • Mercy Kill: Perry shot dead mortally wounded German and American soldiers while in the trenches, as a cloud of poison gas reached their position.
  • Mole in Charge: When the court appoints a replacement lawyer for Emily, it quickly becomes clear that the guy is working for District Attorney Barnes and is planning to sabotage the defense he is supposed to be leading.
  • Mythology Gag: In the first-season finale, Perry is grilling Ennis in court, looking to break him and get him to confess on the stand. In the middle of cross-examination, Hamilton Burger gets up from a bench in the audience and tells Perry that it won't work. The scene then cuts to reveal that they're actually in Perry's house rehearsing. Burger tells Perry to give up, that "No one ever confesses on the stand." Perry sees the point and decides not to call Ennis. The Raymond Burr show was so famous for doing that in every episode that it named a trope.
  • Never Suicide: Sgt. Ennis makes it look like George Gannon shot himself after killing the other two kidnappers (in reality, Ennis murdered all three).
  • New Year Has Come: The first episode takes place over New Year's, 1931-32. Perry gets beaten up by a Hollywood studio executive's goons outside a New Year's party.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Perry revealing Emily's affair to the police leads to Emily getting arrested.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • "Chubby Carmichael", the comedian whom Perry is following in the first episode, is an obvious expy of Fatty Arbuckle, a fat slapstick comedian whose private life got him into trouble.
    • Sister Alice is highly influenced by Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, a Canadian Pentecostal evangelist, media celebrity and scam artist in the 1920s and 1930s who also disappeared for a time and was linked to a fake kidnapping (only this one was her own).
  • Noodle Implements: Medical examiner Verge relates that his colleague on the night shift did some odd "ceremony" with the cadavers that involved a cherub outfit and mayonnaise. He never gets to explain all the details.
  • Origin Story: The show serves as a prequel to the more well-known incarnations of the character. Whereas in all the other stories—the original book series, the 1930s and 1940s movies, and the Raymond Burr show—Perry was a lawyer, in this he is a world-weary private eye working for lawyer E.B. Jonathan.
  • Perma-Stubble: Shell-Shocked Veteran Mason maintains about four days of growth throughout the first few episodes of the series. He at least seems to trim it into a vague approximation of a beard when he offers his services to Mrs. Dodson. He only starts shaving when he passes the Bar exam.
  • The Perry Mason Method: Discussed and subverted. We see Perry trying this with Ennis on the stand, but then there is a cut to reveal that he is just rehearsing the examination with his associates (what we are seeing is his mental picture of how it will turn out). After some heated discussion, Perry is persuaded not to recall Ennis, since he will never get a confession in open court: all the evidence is circumstantial and Ennis will just deny everything.
  • Police Are Useless: E.B. and Perry are hired because Baggerly does not trust the LAPD to handle the case properly. It quickly becomes apparent that the police detectives are set on pinning the murder on the Dodsons and do not care to pursue leads that might point away from that. The lead detective even admits to Perry that he just wants the case closed and is not concerned if they get it right. The detective's partner is one of the kidnappers.
  • Politically Correct History: While the show does have a lot of Deliberate Values Dissonance, some aspects of the setting seem surprisingly progressive:
    • Perry Mason doesn't have a whiff of racism. He maintains a romantic (if casual) relationship with a Mexican woman and treats Drake so fairly that he hires the man to act as his investigator.
    • More unusually, Perry has not an ounce of homophobia. He criticizes Della not for being a lesbian but for trying to keep it a secret from him, and then treats their relationship as perfectly ordinary.
    • The Radiant Assembly of God has a completely desegregated congregation. Black and white church members sit together intermingled.
    • At the end of the first season, Mason proudly introduces Drake to his first client, who doesn't bat an eyelash at his race. No one brings up the idea it might ever become an issue with clients.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Holcomb is just as corrupt and villainous as Ennis, but he recognizes that some crimes are just not worth committing because they are too high profile for them to cover up if things go wrong.
  • Private Detective:
    • At the start of the series, Mason and Strickland both work as freelance private eyes as well as receive steady work from E.B. as investigators. While Mason becomes a lawyer, Strickland takes a job as an investigator at the D.A.'s office by the end of the first season.
    • After the Dodson trial, Drake quits his job because of his disgust with his corrupt collegaues in the LAPD to become an investigator.
  • Pulling the Thread:
    • The Dodsons' stories do not hold up under closer scrutiny. The LAPD quickly unravels Mr. Dodson's alibi because he lied about his gambling. Perry confronts Mrs. Dodson about her affair and quickly breaks through her lies.
    • This happens to Perry as well. He formulates a theory of the crime but Pete points out a problem with it. Perry reshuffles the facts to make them fit better but that leaves even more holes in his theory that Pete points out. Perry has to admit that his theory cannot be true.
    • Perry and Pete do this to the LAPD report of the ransom drop. They examine the location and alternate questioning the evidence. One of them points out a flaw in the report, the other tries to defend it and then the first points out how the defense does not make sense. They conclude that three people could not have pulled off the scheme as the report suggested and that a fourth man must have picked up the ransom and escaped through a walkway to a neighboring building.
  • Race Lift: Paul Drake, white in the novels and previous adaptations, is made into a black police officer who struggles with the ingrained racism of the department.
  • Rape as Backstory: It is implied that Alice's mother let her be raped by a man in return for gas when they were stranded out on the road.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The judge in season one is quite stern, but he shows no preference for either side.
  • Refuge in Audacity: After E.B.'s death no other honest lawyer wants to take the Dodson case so Della arranges for Perry to become a lawyer by faking an apprenticeship letter and arranging help for him to pass the bar exam.
  • Secret Relationship:
    • Perry seems to keep his relationship with Lupe quiet, if not secret, possibly due to racism since he's white and she's a Latina.
    • Della is a closeted lesbian who meets clandestinely with her girlfriend due to the homophobia of the time.
    • Similarly to Della, Burger is a closeted gay man. He takes Della on dinner dates to keep up the facade for both of them.
  • Secretly Wealthy: Mr. Dodson hides the fact that his birth father is fantastically rich from his wife until after they've moved to Los Angeles.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Mason was traumatized by his experiences in World War I, and has difficulty expressing it.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Hazel is a hand model who hand doubles for "Myrna"—that is, Myrna Loy.
    • The murder which starts the series echoes both the Lindbergh kidnapping and Marion Parker case.
    • Strickland notes that the head of the Hollywood studio that hired them looks an awful lot like Groucho Marx. It turns out that he's a whole lot more dangerous.
  • Smithical Marriage: The hotel clerk who delivers devastating testimony in "Chapter 6" reveals that George Gannon checked himself and Emily into the hotel as "Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Kelly."
  • Spiritual Sequel: HBO, Prohibition, crime, police corruption, racism, old timey show business, Holier Than Thou hypocrites, World War I veterans, Tim Van Patten directing, Shea Whigham, Gretchen Mol, Stephen Root... we sure this isn't a Boardwalk Empire sequel?
  • Stout Strength: Chubby Carmichael takes revenge on Perry by attacking him in a phone booth. In spite of being a war veteran, Perry gets his ass kicked.
  • String Theory: Perry Mason has put pictures of the persons in the case and of pieces of evidence on the wall in his house, and connected them with strings.
  • Theiss Titillation Theory: In-Universe, both discussed and inverted in "Chapter 4". A newspaper runs Perry's photo of a nude, Fan Disservice-y Chubby Carmichael, with a black bar covering his privates. A golfer, talking with his buddy about the photo, says "Is it me, or does printing a black bar over your jimmy make it look worse?"
  • There Are No Coincidences: Perry discovers that the fourth kidnapper escaped through a social club located in the building next to the ransom drop. He then sees that Det. Ennis is a member of this club. Ennis tries to claim that it is a coincidence but Perry is not buying it. When Pete investigates Ennis, he finds a number of other "coincidences" that pretty much confirm that Ennis is involved in the kidnapping.
  • Unreliable Voiceover: While Detective Ennis lies through his teeth on the stand in "Chapter 8", the flashbacks that accompany his voiceover testimony show what he was really doing — meeting with the other kidnappers, murdering them, making George Gannon's death look like a suicide, murdering the wet nurse prostitute with a heroin hot shot.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Perry and Alice. After the trial, and free of their obligations, they share a moment in which she comments that neither of them should be alone. Perry's feelings are left unsaid.
  • War Is Hell: "Chapter 2" shows Perry serving as a soldier in World War I while charging with other American soldiers for the German lines as they're mowed down by the dozens, then engaging in brutal hand-to hand combat. His experiences have left him traumatized into the present of 1932.
  • Wham Line:
    • With a single word at the beginning of Emily's trial, which E.B. assumed would be a breeze, becomes much harder.
    Judge Fred Wright: Mrs. Emily Dodson, how do you plead?
    Emily: Guilty!
    E.B.: (Oh, Crap! face)
    • Perry is met in a diner by a man who offers all the help he needs to become a lawyer. When Perry asks his name, the man identifies himself as "Assistant District Attorney Hamilton Burger."
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Perry's methods have a tendency to really piss off his friends.
    • Pete is furious at Perry for trying to blackmail the studio and costing them their $200 payday. Pete needed that money to feed his family.
    • E.B. is furious at Perry for stealing evidence from a crime scene thus making E.B.'s job way more difficult.
    • Perry gives one to the deceased E.B. for killing himself in such a way that it would be Della who found his dead body. Perry is also clearly angry that E.B. killed himself rather than asking Perry for help.
  • Would Hurt a Child: A baby is kidnapped and returned to its parents dead with its eyes sewn open.
  • You Have Failed Me: Holcomb has Ennis murdered for being a loose cannon and having gone too far.