Too much plot getting in the way of the story

I’ve been struggling to persist through the apparently quite popular HBO Perry Mason series, which I’m finding too turgid and “heavy” for my slender attention span.

Here’s a review in The Atlantic with which I am in basic agreement.

Spoiler alert: this Perry Mason is not a lawyer. He’s a rather trope-y hard-drinkin’, hard-lovin’, world-weary sleazy down-on-his-luck private eye, moving through an irredeemable cesspool landscape of depression-era LA and Hollywood, no better nor worse than any of its other sordid denizens, just trying to make a buck any way he can just like them. The tone and atmosphere, and Mason’s character, are all straight out of James Ellroy, and a very far cry indeed from Erle Stanley Gardner.

As with the BBC’s pseudo-Poirot “reboot” I’ve noted before, and as limned in the perceptive above-linked Atlantic review by Sophie Gilbert, this sludgy faux-serious presentation is basically a super-hero origin story. According to Gilbert, the series gets better toward the end, when an actual trial does take place. And I guess Perry has such a great time at it that he decides to go straight and take up lawyering himself, transfigured into a Dark Knight of the Law, or somesuch. And I suppose he will, in future adventures, use his understanding of the morally bankrupt, sleazy life he left behind to pursue a new one standing at least slightly on the right side of the law, but with a dark undercurrent and willingness to break the rules when necessary, to serve as a heavy-handed indictment of society.

This well-worn comic book character arc interests me very little, even in its native form. But okay, fair enough, I guess: “prestige TV” needs a dark, sententious would-be deep and heavy slow-developing anti-hero character-arc, fraught with grim background. It’s part of the brand. It’s “realistic.” Will we see, in a flashback, a young Perry Mason torturing animals and being beaten by his mother who then locks him in a cupboard and gently rocks in a creaky chair murmuring church hymns into a gin bottle with a toy piano playing in the background? Have I, in fact, already seen it but was so distracted by my phone at the time that I didn’t specifically notice? Maybe so, maybe not.

But, fair enough, everyone is the Dark Knight or the Joker or whatever nowadays, so why should this character be any different? It’s a bit of an insult to common decency to appropriate the name and “brand” of Perry Mason for him, but insults to common decency are thick enough on the ground these days.

This is not for me, by the way, a matter of being offended by some desecration of holy ground or anything like that. The integrity of Perry Mason as written by Erle Stanley Gardner or portrayed by Raymond Burr on TV matters to me not at all. The conceptual plan of the original is rather clever, and was an innovation in detective fiction, each story presented as a dual tale that follows the logic of a criminal trial where the prosecution’s incorrect theory is succeeded by the defense’s correct solution. But the writing is sloppy and formulaic, and the TV portrayal of it somewhat flat, a kind of milquetoast noir. A lot could be done with this promising yet imperfect material. If a revisionist portrayal works as entertainment and diversion that’s what really matters, and I’d be all for it.

And if you love it, as so many seem to do, that’s great. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

But it’s not working for me, at least so far, and for the same reason I found I couldn’t enter into the spirit of things when presented with the comic book Hercule Poirot in the BBC’s revisionist ABC Murders earlier this year. Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason is even less substantial as a character than Agatha Christie’s Poirot, the merest sketch, in fact. But as with Poirot, it matters not a bit. Because he’s not the protagonist. His “back-story” is irrelevant. He’s the framing device for the stories — the cases — whose characters are the protagonists. Without those stories, there’s no reason to pay any attention. And in either case, for me, the labored back-story merely gets in the way.

There is a jumbled plotline, a mystery, in this production, but as with The ABC Murders previously discussed, it remains rather far in the background. Word on the street is, the show gets better as it goes on, and zillions of people seem to love it, so maybe my attention span will hold out till I get to the good part and I’ll see where my attention span has steered me wrong.

But probably not, if I’m honest. Despite my criticism here, it’s not like I hated the experience of watching what I did watch of it: it had its moments. But I see the “new episode” flag on the little Perry Mason box and just, you know, never really feel like clicking on it. Last time I fired it up, I ended up switching to that pickle movie with Seth Rogan, just for a bit of relief, and enjoying it a whole lot more, and then finding something else to do. There’s lots of competition for my eyeballs these days and I tend not to get around to pressing play on things that feel like a chore.

I’ll end this by quoting from the linked review, a bit which I think is particularly apt:

With the dour pallor of Zack Snyder superhero movies and the bleak brutality of Lars von Trier, these kinds of stylistic attempts to modernize existing intellectual property tend to miss that what’s most current about beloved crime fiction has actually been there all along…

Perry Mason stood for the idea that people could be wrongly accused of crimes by a fractured legal system more concerned with closing cases than upholding justice. And he accepted shades of gray within his work, rather than imposing clear delineations between heroes and villains. “I’m a paid gladiator,” Mason tells Della in the first Perry Mason novel, 1933’s The Case of the Velvet Claws. “I fight for my clients. Most clients aren’t square shooters. That’s why they’re clients. They’ve got themselves into trouble. It’s up to me to get them out.”

The idea that flawed people have as much right to a fair and balanced legal system as the morally unimpeachable is still novel enough, at this particular moment, to feel radical.

That’s true. It does feel radical, and I’m not sure our world is ready for it.

While I’m not a big fan of the “superhero” franchise model as such, I’ll admit: a superhero crusading as advocate for the accused and standing for the principles of due process, innocent till proven guilty, and Blackstone’s ratio could win my heart and attention quite easily. That’s not the zeitgeist in our twitter-poisoned world unfortunately, quite the contrary. But maybe this new Perry Mason will, at length, stumble into it out of sheer contrarianism. If so I’ll be happy to retract my criticism and bear with a considerable degree of stylistic excrescence, grotesquerie, and cliché. It would indeed be a true novelty. Tell me when that happens and I’ll press play.

Oh, and one further addendum: the architects of this series really screwed up by not taking the opportunity to revive or deconstruct Fred Steiner’s “Park Avenue Beat,” the theme music for the 1950s/60s TV series starring Raymond Burr. It was the best thing about that show and is one of the finest musical compositions of the twentieth century.

Or, there’s this:



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Frank Portman

Frank Portman

I am Dr. Frank. I write books and songs. Mtx Forever.