When I think of The Godfather, I think of that horse head. Sure, there are plenty of other memorable scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s mob masterpiece. But Khartoum’s prize-winning head, beautiful, heavy, drenched in blood and sliding on silk sheets as Jack Woltz’s screams peal across mansion walls, will always be one of those cinematic moments I feel in my bones.
That’s the sort of scene Perry Mason delivers.
The titular defense attorney known to fill those kinds of spaces doesn’t even exist in this universe yet.
Set in post-Great Depression Los Angeles, HBO’s reboot of the historic legal drama approaches its subject with gritty tenacity. The series’ first moments don’t depict a law office, a jury room, or a court in session; Perry Mason isn’t even a defense attorney yet. For now, he’s just a dishonorably discharged veteran-turned-private investigator living off his parents’ old farm and drinking himself to sleep. No title card. No heroic score. Not yet.
Across town, a kidnapping goes wrong. A baby boy is found abandoned on a trolley. His parents, wracked with anxiety, rush onto the car grasping at his swaddled body — only to learn the boy they thought they’d saved is now dead. The baby’s eyes are revealed to be sewn open, having made him appear alive to his parents just long enough for the criminal to grab the promised ransom and getaway. It’s the first horse head moment of many, many to come.
Across Perry Mason’s eight-episode first season, lead Matthew Rhys is tasked with weaving these two arcs together — convincingly tying our hero’s origin story to this mysterious death and the highly publicized trial that comes with it. As always, Mason is backed by his trusty team: mentor E.B. Jonathan, played by John Lithgow; legal aid and secretary Della Street, played by Juliet Rylance; and private investigator/comic relief Pete Strickland, played by Shea Wigham. Mason’s iconic right-hand man Paul Drake, played by Chris Chalk, isn’t part of their work yet. Instead, he appears as a police officer stuck on the wrong side of the group’s pursuit of justice.
It’s a testament to the cast’s ability that any one of these characters seems capable of that final act flip.
Gayle Rankin and Nate Corddry appear as the boy’s parents. Stephen Root portrays district attorney Maynard Barnes, flanked by Andrew Howard and Eric Lange as state detectives. Tatiana Maslany embodies Sister Alice, an evangelical preacher at a local megachurch who claims she is divinely linked to the case at hand.
There is so much talent in this series, even that long casting description can’t capture every performance worth showing up for. The acting in Perry Mason is spectacular across the board, with faithful-to-the-era scripting and unmatched ensemble chemistry. This faultless core allows Rhys to use his immense talent to slip in and out of Mason’s reserved nature seamlessly.
Going from quiet observer to volcanic disruptor at the drop of a hat, Mason is the only character you know has to be the good guy. Still, it’s a testament to Rhys and the rest of the cast’s ability that any one of their characters seems capable of that final act flip. If you follow the fast-talking whodunit well enough, you’ll catch bread crumbs and red herrings in equal measure. But even if you do get distracted, it’s those stomach-churning moments of spectacle that will suck you back in.
The production value of Perry Mason cannot be overstated. From elaborate press conferences à la Chicago to tense debates behind closed doors, the plotline graciously shepherds its audience and characters through interesting settings ripe for the exploration. HBO’s production team built a full world for this series, one that breathes, braces, and astounds right alongside its cast. Just when you think you know what to expect from this plot, when you’ve grown complacent listening to impassioned monologues and snarky quips, you’ll let your guard down only to have another horse head demand you pay better attention to the story unfolding before you.
Of course, a show this ambitious is unlikely to appear without faults. Pacing may prove an obstacle for viewers who haven’t exercised their Mad Men-fortified patience as of late. The smattering of B-plots Perry Mason forgets and abandons are likely to frustrate its more attentive audience members. Most important of all, the choice of writers to have their series’ leading white man use the n-word in one scene is dubious at best, even if you argue it’s authentic to the time period.
All that said, Perry Mason‘s premiere season is undeniably triumphant. Though I saw all of it in a matter of two days, I ask that you trust me when I say this is one show you shouldn’t binge. Instead, treat it like a sit-down with the Godfather himself, endured over a glass of brandy sipped slowly. This isn’t a show for the faint of heart or the eagerness to move on. Perry Mason has its horse heads to deliver. You just don’t want them all in your bed at once.
New episodes of Perry Mason air Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.