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Antiheroes Disrupted TV. Now They’re the Status Quo.

HBO’s ‘Perry Mason’ was initially criticized for its unoriginality, but the show is just the end point of a natural evolution of TV’s golden age trope from groundbreaking to influential to standard

HBO/Ringer illustration

Throughout his near century of existence, the character of Perry Mason has taken on nearly every format in popular culture: detective fiction, written by Erle Stanley Gardner; a radio serial; Old Hollywood films; most famously, a legal procedural. Within that extensive CV is essentially a pocket history of modern TV. Television began as an institutional outgrowth of radio, inheriting everything from concepts to episodic structure to the advertiser model. It then developed signature templates like the procedural and the TV movie, Mason’s primary medium throughout the ’80s and ’90s. It’s only natural, then, that the 21st-century version of Mason would take on the signature style of 21st-century TV: the antihero story aired on premium cable.

HBO’s revival of Perry Mason, which concludes its first season on Sunday, was initially announced as a limited series starring Robert Downey Jr. That description puts Perry Mason closer to another distinctly contemporary kind of show: the movie star vehicle designed for maximum Emmy exposure and minimum long-term commitment. But after Downey dropped out for scheduling reasons in the fall of 2018, the role went to Matthew Rhys of The Americans, the most brooding cable drama of all. (Downey retains credit as executive producer along with his wife, Susan.) Just over halfway through its eight-week run, HBO announced that Perry Mason was renewed for a second season, completing its transformation from a marquee event into a dependable cornerstone of not only HBO’s lineup, but also modern entertainment. Perry Mason may still be best known as a procedural, but it’s evolved into something that’s just as predictable, and thus familiar and comforting, to the average viewer.

This latest Perry Mason is an origin story, though Rhys is several years older than Raymond Burr was when he took on the role for CBS in 1957. We meet Mason as a private investigator for defense attorney E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) in Depression-era Los Angeles. He’s so different from Burr’s polished orator he could be unrecognizable—except this Mason is recognizable, just as a different archetype from the seasoned litigator. He’s a shell-shocked veteran. He drinks too much. He’s a divorcée and an erratic dad. He doesn’t mind breaking the rules. All of these tropes are drawn partly from the noir stories from which Perry Mason pulls its handsomely shot aesthetic. But they’re also rooted in a more recent tradition, albeit one that’s now entering its third decade.

Perry Mason isn’t the bracing challenge to our notion of the protagonist that Tony Soprano or Stringer Bell were in their heyday. Instead, it’s an exercise in following an inherited playbook, and not just in the character of Perry himself. Rather than break the story up into cases of the week, Perry Mason follows just a single case: the alleged infanticide of a baby named Charlie Dodson by his mother, Emily (Gayle Rankin). The cast is stacked with HBO stalwarts like Barry’s Stephen Root as an overzealous DA and Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham as Mason’s partner Pete Strickland; behind the camera, Tim Van Patten of everything from Deadwood to Game of Thrones directs most of the episodes. And to draw out his tortured psyche, Perry gets a tough-talking love interest named Lupe (Veronica Falcón) who occasionally pauses their hookups to say things like, “This case is getting to you.”

Such clichéd signifiers of prestige earned Perry Mason its detractors ahead of its initial release in June. “Why this character? Why this setting? Why this genre? Forget it, Jake; it’s Reboottown,” wrote James Poniewozik in The New York Times. “Why revive a title like this only to do with it what’s been done, over the now-tapped-out prestige-TV antihero era, so many times before?” asked Daniel D’Addario in Variety. With its desaturated color palette, hour-plus running times, and unnecessary exposition, Perry Mason hits a nerve for those in the throes of antihero fatigue.

Granted, the show does make a few gestures at timeliness to help justify its protagonist’s return. Mason’s secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) is reimagined as a queer woman in a committed relationship. Investigator-to-be Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) is recast as a Black policeman subject to racist abuse by a corrupt LAPD. And in a moment with intensified skepticism toward law enforcement and institutional power, the time could very well be right for a legal series centered on a defense attorney rather than the crusading prosecutors of Law & Order and its ilk. Perry Mason is a very old dog indeed, but it’s learned some new tricks.

Still, both Perry Mason’s critics and its own slight adjustments miss the true source of its appeal. (According to HBO, the pilot had reached 8 million viewers as of the renewal.) A couple of years ago, I wrote a column making the case for the prestige procedural, arguing that supersized, serialized shows had little reason to eschew stand-alone plots beyond their historic association with a quick-turnaround, quantity-over-quality production model. In doing so, I may have missed out on a larger, more long-term development: The antihero saga has become the new procedural. In Perry Mason’s case, that transition just happens to be literal.

Of course, “antihero show” and “procedural” aren’t mutually exclusive; one genre pertains to character, the other to structure. There’s currently a cop show on Netflix about the literal devil! The two just have distinct sets of tropes, one of which is slightly newer to the TV lexicon than the other. The late-’50s Perry Mason discovered the efficiency of reusable sets and consistent characters as TV was transitioning from stage-like anthologies to filmed serials, a format that would soon come to define the medium. (The show’s use of legal consultants for factual bona fides, too, would become standard.) The 2020 Perry Mason is less a leader than a follower, but it’s adept at transplanting the dark-and-gritty treatment to its latest host with the help of a talented cast and a $75 million production budget.

The natural life cycle of such tropes arcs from groundbreaking to influential to standard as they’re metabolized by the culture. At each stage of this cycle, the source of appeal is different. The thrill of innovation gives way to the soothing calm of recognition. One may be less glamorous, but both are valid ways of earning an audience’s devotion. Through this lens, the fact that we’ve seen so many glum, tortured men like this new Perry Mason is less a knock than a selling point. After all, we’ve seen just as many confident crusaders like the last Perry Mason, and that never stopped many of them from accruing a fan base.

Shows like this latest Perry Mason inevitably earn unflattering comparisons to Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and other iconic series they’re squarely in the shadow of. But Perry Mason and its peers aren’t trying to replicate a now-20-year-old revolution; they’re invoking a legacy so integral to modern TV it’s become almost background noise. What Perry Mason aims for is something closer to Ozark, Netflix’s rote crime yarn that largely nonplussed critics but garnered a massive viewership and a slew of Emmy nominations. Another tale of a white-collar cartel associate, Ozark is less challenging than Breaking Bad, but also more accessible. Violence and amorality don’t guarantee shock value like they used to. Instead, they’re familiar tools, deployed with muscle memory and received with a knowing embrace. Originality isn’t the selling point there—nor with Perry Mason. The predictability is the point.