HBO's Perry Mason: Grade It!

Perry Mason HBO Premiere Matthew Rhys

TV’s most famous lawyer is back on the case in HBO’s Perry Mason reboot — except he’s not a lawyer just yet.

Emmy winner Matthew Rhys (The Americans) takes over the iconic title role in Sunday’s series premiere, set in 1930s Los Angeles, when Mason was just a private detective scraping to get by. He’ll soon have a humdinger of a case to unravel, though: A young married couple’s baby boy has been kidnapped, and they dutifully leave a suitcase filled with $100,000 in cash for the kidnappers before retrieving the boy from a downtown cable car. The distraught mom clutches her baby to her chest and weeps… but the baby’s not crying. She sees he’s dead, with his eyes gruesomely stitched open.

Perry, meanwhile, is a bit of a mess. Along with his sleazy partner Pete Strickland (prestige TV staple Shea Whigham), he’s reduced to spying on movie star Chubby Carmichael and snapping photos as the actor licks whipped cream off of a giggling lady’s, um, intimate areas. (Chubby catches him spying and chases after him naked, hurling a shoe at him in disgust.) Perry lives on his parents’ old dairy farm, where the past-due bills are piling up, and we learn that his time in the military during World War I came to a “dishonorable” end. So he could definitely use a streak of good luck for a change.

Perry Mason HBO John LithgowHis refined attorney friend E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) arrives with a glimmer of hope: He wants to bring Perry along to a meeting with rich new client Herman Baggerly. (“Wear your good suit,” E.B. pleads with him. “This is my good suit,” Perry replies.) After Perry attempts to squeeze the studio executive who hired him to follow Chubby for more cash — the girl covered in whipped cream happens to be the studio’s new starlet Velma Fuller — Perry and E.B.’s secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) join E.B. at his meeting with Baggerly, who wants their help with Matthew and Emily Dodson, aka the parents of the dead baby boy. The Dodsons are members of his church, Baggerly says, and “I don’t trust the Los Angeles police department to do the job that’s needed.” (“Neither would I,” Perry scoffs.)

While the cops grill Matthew Dodson about his son’s disappearance — yeah, why would the kidnappers think he had $100,000 to pay in ransom? — Perry snoops around their house and runs into Emily, who blames herself for her son’s death, alluding to “being punished” for something. (Hmmm.) Perry also visits the hotel room where the Dodsons left the cash, and he runs into police detectives Ennis and Holcomb, with Ennis roughly putting a gun to his head before threatening to arrest him. Yeah, we can see why Perry doesn’t love the LAPD. Plus, he bribes the coroner to give him a look at Charlie’s body… and blanches when he sees the horrific sight. (He takes a bit of black string from Charlie’s stitched eye with him.)

Perry Mason HBO Shea WhighamPerry and Pete end up at a glitzy New Year’s Eve party thrown by Chubby’s studio — but instead of the $600 he asked for, the studio head gives him just a single dollar before his goons rough Perry up, holding a gun barrel over a flame and branding his chest with it. We get a big clue in the Dodson case, though: The three kidnappers wait to get their cut of the ransom, and they’re met by… Detective Ennis! Who promptly shoots all three of them, finishing one off by savagely stomping on his neck. One kidnapper stumbles away wounded, though, and Ennis chases him up to the roof, where the kidnapper tries to leap to the next building and doesn’t make it, falling to his death.

A drunk and despondent Perry ends up screaming at his ex-wife on the phone, demanding to talk to his son before she hangs up on him. His pilot lover Lupe offers to take him with her to Oaxaca, but he’d rather wallow in self-pity and smash up his son’s fire truck with a baseball bat. But he’s not giving up yet: After Lupe walks out on him, he impulsively pulls together all the evidence he has in the Charlie Dodson kidnapping and spreads it out in front of him on the floor. Folks, we’ve got the makings of a pretty good murder board here, don’t we?

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