Returning to the series as an adult
It wasn’t until the start of 2022 that I returned to the Perry Mason television show. A good friend who loved the show kept telling me how entertaining it was, and how clever and compelling the mysteries were. I decided to watch a few episodes on Paramount + with my wife and see how it stacked up to my childhood memories.
I was in for a shock.
My childhood memories of a grim, implacable Perry Mason, were at odds with the good-hearted, jovial attorney, who was serious and implacable when his client’s fate was on the line, but enjoyed teasing private detective Paul Drake and secretary Della Street. Perry, memorably played by the great Raymond Burr, was an ace attorney, someone dedicated to justice, and especially to helping the underdog.
The noir vibe was there, from the classic theme, the black-and-white cinematography, and so many of the plots, which often involved an inheritance, a business con, blackmail, gambling, or some other flavor of double-dealing. The victim nearly always turned out to a scoundrel, or a bully, cheating spouse–some variety of nasty person.
Perry’s two principle legal opponents turned out to be very different than I recalled.
Lieutenant Tragg, who seemed so implacable when I watched the show as a child, came across as a matter-of-fact homicide detective focused on justice and following the law. He respected Perry, often slightly amused that Mason showed up at the scene of the crime. Sometimes, Mason narrowly avoided being caught red-handed, and Tragg, sensing this, was less than amused.
District Attorney Hamilton Burger waited for Perry and his client in the courtroom. He was implacable, but in pursuit of justice, not a particular individual. He never persecuted anyone. At times, his and Mason’s questioning of various witnesses played out like a fencing duel, right down to Burger’s posture and body languages. He followed the law, but also wanted justice to be served, and when he lost to Perry, saw it as not a loss but rather as justice being delivered. He and Perry would occasionally dine out together after a case, or Burger would sometimes drop by Perry’s office to discuss it. They were rivals in the court room, but congenial, even friends, outside it.
Perry pursued justice even if it meant breaking a few rules, and risking breaking the law. In several of the early episodes, he tampered with evidence, engaging in breaking and entering. His willingness to use bold gambits and stunts as needed to win his case and free his clients was hallmark of his approach throughout the series. Burger constantly complained to presiding judges about such “antics,” “theatrics,” and “dramatics,” but to little avail.
Another surprise was the almost cozy vibe the show had a times. “Cozy noir” is not a genre, but Perry Mason combined a melodramatic noir aspect featuring desperate people with the cozy vibe, focusing on Perry’s legal practice, his friendships with his perhaps long-time girlfriend Della Street, his trusty private eye Paul Drake, and at times, various friends from his past, often those who he ended up defending. Even Burger and Tragg were friends.
While the stories usually climaxed with a courtroom unmasking of the murderer, the final scene was almost always a warm validation of the episode. A reunited couple, a family reconnected, an inheritance finally justly given, or another situation righted, with Perry, Della, Paul with the client and perhaps their spouse, in the office, Perry explaining the solution or Paul a fact that hadn’t been laid out.
Other times the final scene took place in a restaurant, with a similar deconstruction of the case, and possibly Burger or Tragg coming by.
As an adult, I have found this nearly sixty-year old show riveting television, featuring a stellar cast, filled with twisty mysteries. Next time, in Part III, I’ll give my take on those mysteries.