(CNN) — HBO’s dark revisionist version of “Perry Mason” didn’t reach its top tier of dramas in the first season but comes considerably closer in the second, achieving a film-noir-ish cool that leans deeply into “L.A. Confidential” territory. Filtering race, sexuality and the corrupting influence of wealth through a 1930s lens, the series feels more relevant and compelling as a glimpse of the present through that past.
After what amounted to a super-attorney origin story when the show premiered way back in 2020, the new episodes pick up months after that storyline, when a businessman connected to a powerful family is murdered. Eager for a conviction, the police arrest a pair of Latinx brothers (Fabrizio Guido, Peter Mendoza), pressing a case that exposes the not-even-veiled racism practiced by the police and district attorney’s office.
Mason (Matthew Rhys, an Emmy nominee for the show) takes the case, which leads down a twisted rabbit hole filled with eccentric captains of industry and shady deals that starkly illustrates the divide between rich and poor, and the different levels of justice that entails.
“I just see it as making things fair,” Mason says at one point of his tilting at windmills, but as the murdered man’s power broker dad (Paul Raci) warns him as the attorney pokes around in his business seeking to exonerate his clients, “Even when you win, Mr. Mason, you lose.”
Once again, the court case plays out against a backdrop that includes the limitations of life 90 years ago, with Mason’s able right hand Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and the D.A., Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk), both leading closeted existences, with the latter’s secrets making him vulnerable to blackmail.
Mason’s personal life also remains something of a mess as he navigates his divorce, tries to look after his son and in doing so meets a new woman (Katherine Waterston), not that he has a whole lot of time for that.
As noted when the show premiered, the similarities between the familiar TV version of “Perry Mason” (RIP, Raymond Burr) and this gritty take pretty much begin and end with the name, but the emphasis on a trial brings it somewhat closer to the formula. The series is also populated with a topnotch cast, including Chris Chalk as Mason’s investigator Paul Drake, and Shea Whigham and Eric Lange as the kind of hard-bitten characters one might find in an old James Cagney movie.
Understandable skepticism greeted “Perry Mason” when HBO rolled it out, and despite its intriguing pieces, a second season seemed iffy based on the first, surrounded as it is by higher-profile HBO dramas. Credit the producers with upping their game, delivering a show that indeed makes it possible that even if Perry loses, the viewers win.
“Perry Mason” premieres March 6 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.
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