These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.
Few television shows have had an opening title sequence more representative of its content than the one used for the third season of Perry Mason.* It starts with the camera looking down on a stylized figure standing in front of the judge’s bench. There are no walls in the animation, no courtroom to be seen; just a still white image of a man, isolated and alone, open and vulnerable, before the bar of justice. It is the lawyer, engaged in single-warrior combat, the only man standing between an innocent client and the gas chamber. And that lawyer, we see when the camera returns to eye level, is Perry Mason.
*Along with the original opening of The FBI, it’s my favorite series opening of all time.
It’s not only stylish but gripping, telling us everything we would ever want to know about the character of Perry Mason. For Mason is a loner; we never see him out socially with anyone other than Della Street, his devoted secretary, and Paul Drake, his stalwart private investigator; we never see the inside of his apartment unless it’s to establish the setting when he receives an emergency phone call in the middle of the night. Mason's life is the law - you get the idea he reads law books for relaxation - and he’s chosen to pursue that profession by putting himself in the most vulnerable position available to him: that of a trial lawyer committed to seeking justice for his client.
The odds are always against him: the evidence of his client’s guilt is usually considerable, the DA and police are confident of victory, even Paul Drake has his doubts. His reputation and his undefeated record probably put even more pressure on him, what with everyone expecting him to pull another rabbit out of his bottomless hat - not only getting his client off, but identifying the true killer. That’s more than most people would ever want to deal with, and yet by all evidence, Perry thrives on it. What an interesting character!
Some people say that Perry Mason is formulaic, that the plots are often preposterously complicated, that Perry often functions more like a detective than an attorney, that he never seems to have more than one client at a time, that anyone seems able to walk in and see him without an appointment.
To such people, this is what I have to say: So what?
|Burger about to snap his pencil after yet another airtight|
case crashes in flames
*Burger more than Tragg; the good lieutenant occasionally acquiesces to one of Mason's far-fetched schemes, in the pursuit of truth. Burger, on the other hand, sometimes seems as if he doesn't much care whether the accused is guilty or innocent as long as he can beat Mason.
In the pre-trial hearing* Burger’s evidence seems unassailable, until Paul comes into the courtroom with a vital piece of evidence. Perry’s frowning visage fades, replaced by a steely determination as he launches into a withering cross-examination, punctuated with one rapid-fire question after another, always starting with “Isn’t it true,” at which point either the witness or someone in the packed gallery blurts out an admission of guilt (frequently without remorse). Before the final credits run, the gang gathers, usually either in Perry’s office or a restaurant, where he regales them with an explanation of just how he figured out the identity of the guilty party. Fade to black, and the theme music reappears. All you have to do is change the names of the actors and their characters, and you’ve pretty much got 90% of the stories right there.
*A cost-saving method; by staging the action in a pre-trial hearing, the producers didn’t have to cast – or pay for – a jury.
|"Isn't it true?"|
True, there are some questions. For example, the office of District Attorney is an elected one in many cities, including Los Angeles (where the show is set), and it’s hard to see how Burger* keeps getting voted in when he loses every high-profile case he tries. And what about that police department? They seem to constantly be arresting the wrong person, after little more than a cursory investigation which suggests they already have their minds up before they even start. Tragg’s just lucky he isn’t back to walking a beat. In that sense one might see a fairly subversive undercurrent to this series.
*I wonder if anyone ever calls him "Ham"? As in Ham Burger?
There’s never much of a passage of time between the commission of the crime and the pre-trial hearing, either – usually a matter of days, seldom more than a few weeks. Even if we’re looking at a significant period between the hearing and the actual trial (which we hardly ever get to), that’s still justice moving at the speed of light compared to what we have nowadays. And, even considering the judge’s desire to provide the defense with the greatest amount of leeway, Perry seems to get away with a lot.
And to all this, my answer remains: So what? There are few series that have been as much fun to watch as Perry Mason. Raymond Burr, simply put, is Mason; he embodies the role so much that it’s no surprise in real life Burr made many speeches before bar associations. Burr radiates a an overpowering presence, a confidence that most lawyers – or just about anyone else, for that matter – would kill for.* If I were in serious trouble, I cannot imagine just how comforting it would be to have Perry Mason out there fighting for me. I'd probably figure that if he couldn't get me off, I must be guilty. It is rare that any actor can project that kind of power, but Burr does it week after week.
*And smooth, too. When a fan once confronted Burr demanding to know how it was that Mason won every case, he replied, "But madam, you only see the cases I try on Saturdays."
And Perry’s surrounded by a great supporting cast: Della (Barbara Hale), the absolutely perfect confidential secretary; Paul (William Hopper), the private detective who, although he’s sometimes a step or two behind Perry, always delivers the key information in the nick of time.* Burger (William Talman) is properly villainous; seeing his smug face fall when he realizes that Perry has outwitted him yet again, is one of life’s simpler pleasures. And the performance of old pro Ray Collins as Tragg is almost always scene-stealing – it’s a shame that Collins died during the sixth (of nine) seasons.
*One of the things the series does quite well is portray Drake as the head of a large and successful business, the Drake Detective Agency. Contrary to the typical lone-wolf PI, Drake employs a number of good detectives, and has contacts in cities all over the world. He also knows how to throw his weight around.
I wrote some time ago about the prevalence of police procedurals on TV today, and wondered if this in some way had the subliminal effect of reinforcing the public’s acceptance of police and governmental authority. If that is the case, it’s also interesting that there’s nothing like Perry Mason on TV anymore, a series built around a trial lawyer defending the innocent, taking on the state and its authorities, and winning. It’s our loss, in more ways than one.
Next week: The game show that was the most sophisticated half-hour on television
Last week: Nero Wolfe