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Mondays with Mason: Chapter Four

“Why do you do this, papi?”

Some time in between things, Perry Mason’s occasional love interest asks him, it’s after he has been beaten into a ball inside a telephone booth, a vestige from an earlier case. 

While the life of the detective is one that seems to be exciting, it is not impressed upon about how much physically demanding the role is, basically next to the level of taking blows like a boxer on the backfoot; and with the detective it’s not just the physical blows but mental ones too, those begin to strike when the detectives hit the wall in a case. 

If you are not used to daily failure, then no point being a detective, guess that’s why writers love the detective novel, it’s similar to their daily drudgery of having to come up with words with much difficulty, and most of it won’t make the final print and most of most of what makes print, won’t be read at all. But then there’s always the law of averages and they crack the case. 

A break. 

Not in this episode though, which delves deep into failure, we are still giving the spotlight, not to Perry and his work partner (a most wonderful Shia Wingham, whose presence I had failed to devote even a few words to in preceding episodes) who are logically pursuing with what they have (a dead body with a broken mouth), but whatever they might come up with, might not be enough. 

This time the system is coming at them with the biggest hammer possible, last time it was just cutting our heroes out of business, but now it could be reputation or in fact, even careers. 

Oh I’m beginning to love the series, which understands what it really wants to be, a show that breathes life into characters who have appeared in multiple plot focussed novels and the iconic TV shows. It doesn’t want to be more of the same, but this is not a whimsical decision, but one that’s been carefully worked out in writing. 

Well I should stop referring to the whole HBO series as “it” and explain that Erle’s books and the early TV shows would be the end result of this one, a true character builder, so that we go chomp away case after case that Perry’s been in. Thanks to Matthew Rhys and associates, we get a sense of what makes Perry,well Perry. It’s the answer to our “why do you do this Papi?” opening, if you didn’t notice, just saying. 

Good job. It’s character development that should make other writers envious. It makes me and I’m not even a writer. To make something out of something that’s already made, good job Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald and all the others in the writers room. 

Back to failure. What I feared about E.B Jonathan, John Lithgow’s defense lawyer seems to come true, an old man in a time and profession where being an old man is the surefire path to destruction. But there’s only so much failure, a man at the end of his life can take, there’s only so much that E.B can push back and I think I saw the last of those pushbacks. Lithgow, in prison, with his client trying to explain that he believes her but he could only go so much ahead is a brilliant one, one in which he goes from being hopeless to hope-giver and his eyes do more than the talking. John Lithgow is a treasure. 

I have a theory, hear me out, it’s simple, it’s a theory about judging conviction on screen, it takes time. Yes, that simple. Maybe like in real life, you need to know the person to really believe in their convictions. The first three episodes have been that time,so when Della Street means that she is angry at the inability of society to do the decent thing, I believe it, it’s not some angsty twitter account, it’s a person. 

Apply my theory to why so many ‘socially conscious’ movies feel hollow even when they are loaded with good intentions all through. No real character, just empty words and good intentions of course. 

Besides meditating on failure, Chapter 4 also makes some inroads, but these inroads only seem to deepen the mystery, but all I can say at halfway point, that Perry Mason now almost knows about the Charlie Dodson murder that the viewers knew two episodes ago. 

That doesn’t seem much. Four down, four to go. Stay tuned. 

Perry Mason Chapter 4 teleplay by Steven Hanna and Sarah Kelly Kaplan. 

Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven

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TV

Mondays with Mason: Chapter Two

The Perry Mason Recap: Season 01, Episode 02

I did not mention in our first episode recap that old Erle Stanley Gardner wrote more than 80 novels featuring lawyer Perry Mason, there were short stories too. 

80. 

When we think about it, especially when we clench our teeth to update a blog and that too with almost zero barriers to publish (except our own will), here was a man who wrote 80 novels with just one character and he had other characters too.

I’m sure that old Erle had his own plot making machine to churn out so many stories, I could almost picture him sitting at a desk going rat-at-tat on the typewriter, often with a pencil in his mouth, which would then be used to reorganize a plot. It’s humbling to picture this.

It was the golden age of pulp, people consumed it a lot, so there wasn’t a necessity to look into the soul of any character, just the bare bores, again just like I picture Erle, I picture a reader too, somewhere in a bunker with a lamp, instead of a pencil, a cigarette in his mouth, reading the exploits of Perry Mason & Della Street, only to wake up next day and go fight Nazis. Character development would have hardly been on his mind. It was a different time, a much harder time to live and these 140-200 pages of pulp gave them the excitement, the respite, the breathing space in a densely packed bunker. A way of escape that could fit in your pocket, along with the cigarette. It’s even humbling to picture this, even in our so called times of distress. 

Which is where I come to chapter two. A great man once said, that the unexamined life is not worth living, and the makers of the HBO series have taken this route, to examine the hitherto unexamined Perry Mason, the one who provided short grasps at entertainment to soldiers, is now a soldier himself, only in an earlier war, the great war, where the trenches replaced the bunker. That sort of looking at death changes people often for the worse, but will he change into the person we know from the books?

Seems unlikely, if you thought (like I did) that the first episode was dark, this one even takes a darker turn. In a sense, most of the characters have been introduced in the first episode barring two. Tatiana Maslany, who gets an entire moving sequence as an introduction to her character and to the Radiant Assembly of God. Note this time, we would come back to this soon. 

So yeah, with the introductions done, the episode literally takes a turn towards noir. It is reinforced again and again with Perry looking beyond a corner,to proceed or not, to face what’s ahead or to turn back? But then for a soldier, turning back is worse than death. He has no option but to stare back at the darkness.

Cut to the case. 

Remember,we left Perry with a strand of thread, he still has it, sitting in a corner. The thread that stitched the eyelids open of the dead baby, maybe we have not seen anything horrific than that, but Perry has. The Dodsons, who lost their baby, are trying to find solace and support from a secret benefactor linked to the Radiant Assembly of God led by Sister Alice who apart from running an influential church presents herself as a lightning conductor to God’s wishes. 

There’s another introduction too, one that is a familiar face , Paul Drake (played by The Newsroom’s Chris Chalk), not as the trusted right hand man and detective of Perry Mason, but a beat cop who discovers the effects of the violence from the previous episode. As is the normal, he is too smart for his peers and his deductions start to hit a wall. 

On the other side of this wall, leans Perry, there is yet another clue that is unearthed but he is beginning to realize that much like war, those who do the legwork don’t control the outcomes as much as those old men who sit around in panelled rooms and talk. Old men with power. 

This distinctly gave me a Chinatown feel, readers can ignore this because I get a Chinatown feel for most things. 

But I really like the dark turn (around the corner) that the series is taking, an earlier non-covid me would have been displeased with the complete absence of my ‘Perry Mason’, but hey, people change and these are not normal times.

Gayle Rankin as Emily Dodson I should say has been a revelation in this episode and slowly like the unwinding of the top, the episode also gives us a little more into the lives involved, we have one more clue, another death found and a hero who is willing to turn the corner. 

Great episode, waiting for more. 

PS The look and feel of this series is all film noir, so yeah obviously it is shot in color but the makers have painstakingly tried to limit the color palette to yellow and a deep blue, the nearest visible equivalents to black and white. Did you notice? Mel Gibson’s Payback too had similar styling. Just recollecting. 

HBO’s Perry Mason is streaming on Disney+Hotstar in India.

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TV

Mondays with Mason: Chapter One

The Perry Mason Recap: Season One, Episode One

Anyone who has spent some time in lending libraries around Chennai would know that Perry Mason was not just a book that you borrowed, but a whole shelf of paperbacks to get through. 

This is how them shelves be labelled and helped boys (at the time) such as me optimize our time within their premises: 

Romance (skip)

Periodicals (10 mins, mostly Cosmo) 

Comics (10 mins, mostly Phantom) 

And bulk of the time…

Agatha Christie

Perry Mason

So you see reader, Perry Mason was not just a set of books, it was a genre, a name that even blocked its author Erle Stanley Gardner out of memory. Maybe it was easy to label it as just Perry Mason. 

Speaking of names, the books had very intriguing titles, almost always a case attached to it; like the case of the velvet claws or the case of the black-eyed blonde (incidentally the black-eyed blonde part was borrowed for a recent Marlowe novel title, there’s our fun fact) and when the first episode  of the HBO TV series dropped, I was quite disappointed when it read ‘chapter one’. 

But the makers make up for the lack of imagination in titles with the richness of the settings. 

It’s 1930s Los Angeles.

The great depression, the cynics utopia, the golden age of pulp that relished the washed-out wit of detectives, the time when Chandler, Hammett (the Maltese Falcon was exactly 1930, there’s another fun fact), Gardner and a whole lot of others wrote their weight in gold. I could go on, because I love this as my literature and it’s there in this updated series from image one. 

It’s one thing recreating the city visually, it’s another recreating what I thought it was from the books. It begins with a ransom call and a baby kidnapping gone wrong, the unspeakable happens in which even a bit of thread could be so diabolical. 

That’s the case, it’s graphic and I understand why they don’t want to put in the title. 

When we meet our hero, it’s raining and he walks through his name credit, styled to resemble the Warner films of yore into a diner. Perry Mason, detective, not lawyer, detective and currently he is on a tail job. Classic. 

If you are a Depression era detective you must have the some of the following 

🔫 a pistol, because you never know what you get on the job

🤣an unhealthy sense of humor, because life’s bad anyway

👮a healthy hatred of uniformed policemen, ex-job maybe

🔬 an eye for detail, every clue counts

🐌a relentlessness search for an end and maybe the truth

👤a perennial love for social distancing

But more importantly, every detective of the time had their own take on life, a running social commentary that walked along with them that when these writers brought it out with the necessary turn of phrase, it became how readers made sense of the world, their own philosophy. 

If Marlowe was the Arthurian Knight, Mason was the one who stood between the underdog and society’s ills and monsters. 

Not in this episode, no, he is a typical detective, his philosophy will hopefully evolve over the course of the show, because there is space in ten episodes to do a lot of character development. 

Here he is quite clueless, when his partner asks him about life and fun and the next few scenes, we uncover layer after layer, his Great War experience, his marriage or lack of it, his diary farm that precariously sits next to a flying club and his general shabby life. Perry seems pretty empty at this point, clearly he has seen a lot and his motivation, although not his only, seems to be to get over with cases and get paid for it. There’s shockingly a streak of unscrupulousness too which comes out when he goes blackmailing, but I couldn’t read greed in him. Again, not typical Mason. 

But what’s typical in these types of stories is that our hero gets hit by thugs and I forgot to add resistance to thugs in my essential detective checklist. 

After much character development, we now have the kidnapped baby case brought to him by the ever terrific John Litgow who plays a senior lawyer (E.B) and our detective. 

That’s all really what I pine for, in a revival like this. 

The case is definitely high profile for Perry, he has to face off with insulting policemen at the crime scene, a shadowy client with deep pockets and deeper faith, a fidgety father who looks good for the killer on paper and a grieving mother who reminds him of his own son, far far away, separated. Oh yeah, there’s Della Street too

As we call to turn the page to chapter 2, our hero literally just has a strand from the case and there are lots of ways in which it could go from here. But is it not the job of the detective to go down the mean streets to get to the truth? 

Stayed tuned, till the next episode of Mondays with Mason. 

Oh yeah, this is a HBO show and it goes without saying.So there’s already at least two scenes that you cannot watch with family, but there’s a certain fun in solo watching of a show which features a lonely detective. 

HBO’s Perry Mason is streaming on Disney+Hotstar in India.