The reboot also flips the case-of-the-week format, instead unfurling a single case across the series.
“I purposely didn’t go to the novels,” actor Matthew Rhys, who plays Perry Mason in the new series, explains. “I have done a few adaptations and invested slightly too heavily in the novels and [it] kind of muddled my brain. You start playing things that aren’t in the script.
“I wanted to keep it a little cleaner and a little more linear and kind of go, right, this is the script, this is what I’m going to work from.”
The change to a single case, Rhys adds, was an important departure from Perry Mason tradition. “That allows an audience to really invest and also allows all the characters in it over eight hours to go through a hell of a journey, as I think we all did,” he says.
Rhys is best known for roles in Brothers & Sisters and The Americans. The series co-stars Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany as Sister Alice, a prominent figure in the rising evangelical movement, Juliet Rylance and Chris Chalk as Perry Mason franchise stalwarts Della Street and Paul Drake, and John Lithgow as E.B. Jonathan, Mason’s mentor.
Rhys says he was initially sceptical about taking the part. “Because when I was told they’re going to remake Perry Mason, you go, oh, who’s going to remake Perry Mason?” he says. “In fairness, when they said it was HBO remaking it, you kind of know it’s not going to be the Perry Mason our grandparents or parents knew and loved.
“It was the meeting with the producers [Robert Downey jnr and Susan Downey’s production company Team Downey] and the writers that immediately changed my mind and intrigued me and attracted me, so I was like, this is going to be something incredibly interesting, and it was.”
The role comes after Rhys’s extraordinary six-season run in The Americans, a critically acclaimed performance which only got its hard-fought acknowledgement at the end. “The luxury of a successful career is to play people you want to play and tell stories you want to tell, and if that’s afforded to you, then I think that’s as good as it’ll ever get.”
While the HBO miniseries is not a prequel, it does serve as something of an origin story for Mason, largely because the first handful of Gardner’s novels cover the trajectory of Mason’s life before he became the polished courtroom defender of legend.
“We see there’s a great injustice that’s done to a younger Perry Mason, [and] it serves as a great sense of justice, of right and wrong for him, and that he cannot live either side of it,” Rhys says. “It has to be that one thing, the right thing … that just has to be done.
“That’s what I think spurs him into becoming a defence attorney, that he can’t sit by and see an injustice happen or be privy or party to something that’s unjust, where he has a hand in the outcome of what that justice should be.
“So that’s the big, the one grey element to me. That he has an incredible black-and-white sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. [But] he has an incredible amount of grey as to how he achieves what’s black and what’s white.”
There is an intentional parallel between 1930s LA and present-day America in the narrative, played most loudly by elements such as the clash between culture and authority, and the rise of evangelism.
“Systems exist to protect the people who have built those systems and we’re witnessing here in the States immense struggles against the powers that be that have profited from these systems for centuries,” says Maslany.
“People are unwilling to look at that because it threatens their comfort, it threatens their power and it threatens their ability to do whatever they want. So it’s horrific that we’re still in this space of trying to dismantle systems that have existed for so long.
“It does at the same time reflect what is changing right now,” she adds, referring to protests across the US about police powers, inequality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“And I think seeing this show in context with what’s happening right now, that there are changes happening, that voices are being heard is very bolstering and exciting, especially in reflection back to the themes continuing to be relevant in this show.”
Rhys concurs, adding: “If we watched this show without this moment, this glimmer of hope that there is going to be change, if there wasn’t that and we watched the show, I think it’d be incredibly depressing.
“What spurred these moments of change are equally as tragic as they are depressing, but from that, if there is a trajectory of change, which we hope remains, then the ideal is to look at a show like ours and go, look, it is changing.
“So we live in hope.”
WHAT Perry Mason (premiere)
WHEN Fox Showcase, Monday, 11am, 8.30pm
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.