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Perry Mason S1E1: Chapter One Throws Us Into a World of Corruption

Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO

Perry Mason S1E1 opens with the Dodsons having their baby held for ransom. They’re asked over the phone to open a suitcase full of money and put it on a desk, presumably so that it can be seen from afar. And then they go to find their son in a trolley car, right where the man on the phone said he would be, but he’s dead and his eyes have been stitched open.

It seems pretty clear that this will be the central mystery of HBO’s Perry Mason. Why did someone kidnap this baby? Why, or how, did the Dodsons have the amount of money asked in ransom (and how was that known)? Why did the bad guys stitch little Charlie’s eyes up, or even kill him in the first place? Was that maybe an accident? And, of course, just who are the bad guys?

There is a dark tone to this version of Perry Mason from the very beginning of the series. It’s clear that we’re not watching a late-50s courtroom drama. This is noir. Everything sets this tone well enough that it almost seems excessive when the kidnapper on the phone says “f*ck” more than once in the opening scene. Or perhaps it’s that a lot of those old instances of film noir wouldn’t have had this kind of language either. Regardless, it’s clear that HBO’s Perry Mason wants to set a “long, dark tone,” and it does it well.

Matt Dodson sits with his hands on his knees
Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO

The other main storyline of S1E1 involves Mason (Matthew Rhys) and Strickland (Shea Whigham) working a case as PIs to show that Chubby Carmichael (Bobby Gutierrez)—a silent movie star who is being pushed out in the new age of talkies—has violated his morality clause.

Ultimately, Perry finds him involved in sex acts that also involve food (pumpkin pie, I think?) and snaps some photos. But it turns out the woman involved is an up-and-coming starlet named Velma Fuller (Madeline Zima), so after Chubby chases them down the street naked and throws a shoe at Mason’s milk truck, he decides to ask for more money.

This does not go well. It would seem that, while the studio wanted to push Chubby out and was willing to pay for the evidence that would help them do so, they want to protect Velma. This goes to show that the “morality clause” is bullshit, at least in terms of its real raison d’être—it’s not about morality so much as a way for executives to exert power.

Of course, the “morality” is also questionable. It seems worth noting that it is the involvement of food that is referenced when Perry brings the information about Chubby Carmichael in, but I can’t ignore the fact that he was going down on a woman and wonder to what extent that came into play. It remains the case that cunnilingus puts a film at risk for an NC-17 rating regardless of other aspects of the scene pertaining to nudity and the like, which is ridiculous.

Perhaps HBO deserves some credit for portraying it here (along with the following scene that involves a rotund man running naked in the street with his penis flapping around), but the “morality” in question when it comes to this story isn’t really examined. Even if Mason and Strickland don’t have a problem with it, they are more than happy to take the money (they don’t get) for exposing all of this.

Yes, the show is set in 1931, but I don’t know how much things have changed. I hope you’ll agree that cunnilingus is a good and healthy thing and that any lingering negative moral values attached to the act represent repressive patriarchal tendencies and a fear of feminine sexual pleasure, but I know that unfortunately not everyone would agree with that.

But if you have a problem with it, you’re wrong. Do it.

And honestly the food thing, too. Whatever goes on between consenting adults, what right do we have to look down on it and pass judgment? Why should we? Why should we care?

Personally I don’t mind calling these things perversion in a technical sense, but if that’s laden with morality we need to re-examine where we’re coming from and what grounds we have. Unfortunately, Perry Mason doesn’t really seem to do that. These plot points are just sort of there.

What Makes This Perry Mason?

I’ve never really gotten into the old-school Perry Mason that aired on CBS from the late-50s into the ‘60s. I’ll admit that. I did, however, watch a whole bunch of those TV movies they made in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And there was a certain formula to these things. There were always a lot of plot threads, and a lot of suspects, that ended up coming together in a way where we all knew who did it. And then Mason makes them reveal it on the stand, or something like that. My understanding is that the original series tended to do pretty much that same thing.

Perry Mason S1E1 had me wondering a bit about what exactly makes this show Perry Mason. Which is to say, this isn’t Columbo, where you always tended to know who did it from the beginning and it was just a matter of him figuring it out. I like Columbo as well as the next guy, but it’s a different form, and at times this episode had me feeling like I was watching a mix of that with an old noir, as opposed to fitting with the title.

So I’m not sure about how Perry Mason S1E1 reveals the involvement of Det. Ennis (Andrew Howard) to us. Granted, we don’t know the full story, and he kills his accomplices (or underlings, or whatever the right term may be), but this gets pretty close to that Columbo move where we know whodunit from the get-go.

However, I think it is clear that things will be more complicated than that, even if that thought requires pulling on some things beyond the text of the first episode to some degree.

Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) and her church will clearly be more involved in this story moving forward, and I can’t help but predict that they have something to do with the kidnapping in some way. The question as to why may well be more interesting than anything, which does feel in line with the Perry Mason of the past.

And Matt Dodson (Nate Corddry) seems likely to be railroaded by the cops for the murder of his own son, which will give us the wrongly accused that Perry Mason is trying to get off the hook. We know at least one of the cops is against him (and involved in the thing), so a convoluted interplay of motives and actions seems to be on deck, which is very much something I associate with Perry Mason.

Equally, I’m curious to see if and how the Hollywood storyline in Perry Mason S1E1 comes to intersect with the main narrative of the Dodson case. I expect that it will somehow. Too much time was spent on it here for it to just be scene setting or background. And that’s another thing I expect from Perry Mason—that everything will ultimately be relevant.

So what’s the deal around the fact that little Charlie liked turtles?

Caemeron Crain

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain studies philosophy and is a writer and head of the TV department at 25YL. He is a party to a Twin Peaks podcast that then did a few episodes on Surrealism before entering an indefinite hiatus. He also has a cat.

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