How HBO's Perry Mason Overcame WWI Shellshock and Found His Mission

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Shea Whigham and Matthew Rhys star in a new "Perry Mason" television series. (HBO)

"Perry Mason," HBO's reimagining of the legendary defense attorney, takes the character back to 1932 and reintroduces him as a rough and haunted man who appears nothing like Raymond Burr's beloved TV character of the 1950s and 1960s. The new series is airing Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET on the cable channel and streams wherever you get your HBO.

When the series opens, it's Christmas 1931, and Mason (Matthew Rhys from "The Americans") is scraping by as a private investigator for defense attorney E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) and sparring with legal assistant Della Street (Juliet Rylance). He's sloppy and often drunk, staring off into space and disconnected from the people around him.

Los Angeles is thrown into media chaos after the kidnapping and murder of a small boy whose parents Matthew and Emily Dodson (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin) attend Sister Alice's (Tatiana Maslany from "Orphan Black") evangelical temple, a fictional house of prayer based on Aimee Semple McPherson's real-life Foursquare Church.

Episode two of the series opens with a flashback to Mason's service in the trenches of World War I. The show, blessed with a big HBO production budget, portrays that war's battles with almost as much squalor and terror as we saw earlier this year in the movie "1917."

Related: How '1917' Taught a New Generation to Care About World War I

Jonathan tells clients that Mason is a war hero, but one digs up the fact that our hero was discharged with a "blue ticket," a category that was neither honorable nor dishonorable but often used to kick out homosexuals and African Americans. Former soldiers with this designation were denied veteran benefits and often suffered employment discrimination back home. The blue discharge was discontinued after World War II in 1947.

Mason survives hand-to-hand combat with German troops in a bunker and is haunted by the deaths of fellow soldiers on the battlefield. The brutality, and Mason's role in it, has saddled him with enormous guilt and depression.

The three kidnappers are found dead and the case should be closed, but ambitious district attorney Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root) sees a chance to make political hay from the case. He charges the baby's mother with murder after it's revealed that she was conducting an affair with one of the bad guys.

The Raymond Burr character was always the most clever guy in the room, and he specialized in freeing his clients by exposing the real murderer on the stand with courtroom theatrics. The HBO series is more connected to the dark, conspiratorial Los Angeles portrayed in the detective novels of James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy and the films noir their books inspired.

The conspiracies are intricate, but Perry finds a purpose (and somehow becomes a lawyer) based on his determination to save Emily Dodson from hanging. Along the way, he meets an African American police officer named Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) who quits the force and decides to become Perry's full-time investigator.

Shea Whigham ("Boardwalk Empire," "Fargo," "Homecoming") starts off as Perry's investigative partner before finding a new role that should bring him back for a future season. There's even a brief appearance by Perry's prosecutorial nemesis Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk), who plays a shocking part in Mason's transformation.

As Perry gets himself together over the course of the show's eight episodes, his character seems to let go of the shellshock that dominates the first couple of episodes. He still takes a strong drink but now he stops before he passes out.

By the time the season is over, there's been some measure of justice, but viewers aren't getting the tightly wrapped package they might expect from something called "Perry Mason." The origin story, however, is complete, and we're set up for a season two that could feel a whole lot more like the Perry Mason people have always loved.

The series was originally developed for Robert Downey Jr., and the redemptive arc of the character has echoes of Tony Stark and the sassy dialogue sometimes seems written expressly for Downey. Matthew Rhys likely does a better job of disappearing into the character than Downey could have, and the role seems sturdy enough to be one he could play for a decade.

"Boardwalk Empire" director Tim Van Patten returns to the network to direct most of this first season, and "Perry Mason" shares that earlier show's attention to period detail. Early ratings for episode one were extremely strong and, as the series airs over the next two months, an order for a second season seems likely.

This "Perry Mason" series suggests that the character's PTSD is the spark that lights the fire that drives him to seek justice for the innocent. That condition is established but recedes as he finds his mission over the season. If the show's producers were serious about Perry's condition (and the production values in the World War I scenes suggest that they were), Mason's demons should return to haunt him in future seasons. We'll be watching.

If you don't currently subscribe to HBO or HBO MAX and wonder if this show's for you, HBO has posted the entire first episode on YouTube (embedded below).

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