HBO’s reimagining of “Perry Mason” is set squarely against the backdrop of post-World War I 1930s Los Angeles and during a time of marked cultural upheaval, not totally unlike the one the U.S. has been experiencing lately.
“Who knew we would be living through a period that recalled the Great Depression. And we keep on hearing, ‘unemployment hitting levels not seen since the Great Depression’ or wages plummeting or joblessness. It’s extraordinarily timely all of a sudden,” says star John Lithgow, who plays a new character in the Perry Mason universe, E.B. Jonathan.
The eight-episode mystery centers on a more novice iteration of Mason (played by Matthew Rhys), who is working as a private investigator, and not yet as the defense attorney from the beloved 1950s series.
On whether he thinks the show’s themes of social justice and centering stories from marginalized communities will resonate differently now, Rhys says yes and no.
“I think the fact that there’s a responsibility [to remind viewers that] this was done long before we knew these kinds of elements of change were coming at this present time. Possibly one of the greatest tragedies is that this has gone on for so long and that we keep having to remind,” he says.
Adds co-star Tatiana Maslany (Sister Alice), “I feel like the people who will be surprised by how resonant it is are white people… We have the luxury of seeing this as resonant, as opposed to having lived that for forever, you know?”
For Chris Chalk, the themes of racial tension and strife are not necessarily new. But having a non-white character like his — police officer Paul Drake — being brought to the forefront and humanized is certainly a refreshing departure from most period pieces set in that era.
“[The] world has not changed too terribly much from when we filmed it and when the show aired. It’s still a racist world that doesn’t care about anybody that’s not a straight white Christian male,” says Chalk. “All we’re doing is telling the truth in a way that is very digestible. And just by having a Paul Drake exist as a police officer on your show, that’s a step.”