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Perry Mason Episode 1: The Noir We Need Right Now

Perry Mason

The first episode of Perry Mason, the new HBO series, dropped a few days back. As a noir fan (something most regular readers already know), the first episode filled me with a brooding melancholy and cynicism.

Which means? Perry Mason is damn good.

In fact, Perry Mason was so good that I’ve decided to write a piece on every episode until the first season ends.

You might wonder what was so special about the first episode on Perry Mason.

The reason I’m psyched is that I am getting heavy True Detective season 1 vibes from Perry Mason.

In Mason, I am seeing a combination of Rust and Marty. However, I am skipping ahead. Let me introduce you to the world of Perry Mason.

The Story

In the first episode, we see Perry (the protagonist after whom the series is named), a private detective. He and his partner are following a popular comedian and hoping to catch him in a compromising situation. As his tryst with the comedian comes to an ebbing, a new case surfaces. This one involves the murder of a one year old child.

Mason takes on the case and starts investigating the crime scenes. He starts suspecting the father of the child in having a hand in the crime. The two LAPD detectives on the case also believe the same. Meanwhile, his attempt to swindle some Hollywood executives with the pictures of the comedian he was chasing earlier with an actress fail miserably.

In the final scenes, Mason’s suspicions of the father of the murdered child turn out to be true. However, before we can learn more, the father and his associates are killed by one of the LAPD detectives.

The Value in Cynicism – True Detective and Perry Mason

“This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading. It’s like there was never anything here but jungle.”

Quote from True Detective

True Detective (I speak of season one alone) is a remarkable example of finding justice within the philosophy of cynicism.

From the very beginning of the story, Rust Cohle is absolutely certain about the shithole the world really is. He is convinced about the flawed direction humanity is headed in. His views on human reproduction, for instance, fly against everything we believe in.

Cohle is the type of man who has lost faith in all institutions people usually believe in. As the story progresses, we slowly see the real decadence of institutions like religion, the church, and the government.

Furthermore, we see the absolute capitulation of Marty. From the very beginning, Marty is shown as the philosophical opposite of Cohle, the man who believes in institutions. The fall of Marty and the unravelling of trusted institutions plays perfectly into Cohle’s idea of the world.

What is the idea? It’s all fucked.

Perry Mason doesn’t have the deep philosophical underpinnings of True Detective. It doesn’t espouse the philosophy of cynicism blatantly through a vessel like Rust.

Instead, you have a more normal instinctive form of frustration and apathy in Perry Mason. The general cynicism seems natural especially because the story is set in the years after the Great Depression.

Why are these kinds of stories appealing? Look around. We are probably going through the same kind of social and economic changes the people during the Great Depression were going through. A noir series like Perry Mason appeals to those who feel lost during this great era of change.

Stubbornness – The Only Counter to a Flawed System

So, what is the counter to corrupt institutions? If a cynical man has already admitted the great flaws of the system, how does he win?

Like Rust and Marty, Perry has one quality which makes him a formidable counter to the decadent society he lives in – a steely stubbornness.

In the first episode, we see Perry living in an ancestral farm which is surrounded on all sides by airstrips. He is the last person left who is not giving up his land.

This element is a window into the steely and stubborn nature of Perry. As the world around him is changing, he stands alone, resisting and refusing to follow the world. Like iron, he is hard and strong, determined to break before bending.

This is how our two protagonists in True Detective also find justice in the end. Despite knowing all the wrongs in the world, Cohle is relentless, not willing to give an inch. Marty, flawed and broken, walks with Cohle and faces death without fear as he doesn’t have much to live for.

For now, it appears Perry will also wage war against the machine which churns out people for fun.

It’s not surprising to learn that Nick Pizzolatto was first going to write the series. A change in the writing staff saw Nick leaving, but it appears some of ideas from True Detective are still here.

Is the New Perry Mason Similar to the Old One?

When Perry Mason was first announced, people naturally assumed we would see a series around a lawyer. You can then imagine my surprise when I discovered Perry Mason in this new series is a detective and not a lawyer.

In the first episode, there appears to be no evidence suggesting Perry has a record as a lawyer. There are a few scenes which talk about his time in the Army, but not anything more about his past professions.

In popular culture, Perry Mason is actually a fictional lawyer. Various films, TV series, and books are based on Perry Mason as a lawyer, not a detective as this new series shows.

Judging by the first episode alone, I believe the writers are giving up the lawyer angle for this series. The reason why they choose to name a detective after a famous fictional lawyer remains unclear. Future episodes would probably shed light on the matter.

Mathew Rhys Is Amazing as Perry Mason

Robert Downey Jr was supposed to play Perry Mason in the series until he dropped out and Mathew Rhys stepped in. If the first episode is any indication, Rhys has hit this out of the park.

He captures the resistance to change within Mason perfectly with an empty and apathetic demeanor. The final shot of him standing over the various material related to the case he’s dealing with sets up the entire season perfectly.

I am psyched.

What else? Watch Perry Mason and watch this space every week when a new episode drops. We’ll talk.

Also read: What is Speculative Fiction?
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