These are the kinds of shows that no one at work can talk about unless everyone within earshot has seen the latest episode. (Then it’s yada-yada-yada-I-can’t-believe-that-happened, and everyone has their own version of here’s-what-I-think-will-happen-next.)
I get the attraction. Award-winning shows like this deliver what viewers apparently want — realism mixed with fantasy, comedy and drama while glimpsing worlds apart from us. Noble families tangle in the throes of violence, power struggles, and sex, while showering characters with lust and bloodshed along the way. Zombies overrun a post-apocalyptic world were nothing except death seems certain or predictable.
I have a must-see show, too, full of drama, comedy and fantasy that’s also earned its share of awards and accolades. But compared to today’s award-winning shows, it’s quite tame, so no one really knows about it.
No, really. Perry Mason. The show that ran from 1957 to 1966 based on characters Erle Stanley Gardner created in 1933 that not only became one of the best-selling television series of all time but also set the standards for law shows to come.
I bumped into Perry one day while skimming through the guide. He lives on the classics channel, along with Andy and Opie, Potsie and Fonzie, Mama and all of her family, and a pack of cowboys, cattle rustlers and posses. He stands tall in that company.
Perry lives in a world where characters drive boat-sized Cadillac convertibles, women wear hats and gloves, and everyone smokes as if it’s their job.
Characters live in mansions and well-appointed homes, with others in apartment buildings typically called The Something Arms, which I gather meant high rent, all with full ice buckets and cigarette boxes.
I can hear you now — where’s the suspense and drama in any of that? Perry wins every case (except he doesn’t). He never hooks up with his loyal secretary, Della Street (maybe? we don’t really know). And Hamilton Burger, the prosecutor who loses case after case to Perry? How does he even keep his job? Where’s the relevance in any of that? (except it’s about justice, not winning).
To be sure, this show lacks what popularizes entertainment today. No swear words. No sex scenes. No violence. No nudity. No car chases that end in fiery crashes. No dangling storylines that weave in and out of the main conflict. And certainly no dragons.
A Perry Mason episode, neat, clean and compact, concentrates on just the elements it needs — the storyline and the characters who drive it, and dialogue to carry the show.
Yet I’m inexplicably drawn to this show.
At first, the old-school filming, with slow and steady camera work, drew me in. Watching a Perry Mason episode is like watching a movie, because of its film noir style in how it uses light and shadow. No multiple cameras simultaneously filmed the scenes, so reaction shots and close-ups which highlight dialogue were filmed separately and spliced in with the scenes, practically an art form in itself.
Once I stopped watching how it was filmed, the character of Perry Mason drew me in.
In that deliberate pacing, scene by scene, moment by moment, is a character who actually thinks before he speaks. He asks questions. When he doesn’t know, he just keeps his mouth shut. He listens and keeps his assumptions and opinions to himself, until he knows. So when he speaks, he has something worth saying.
Where do we see that in our world? Fantasy, right?
Perry’s world, like ours, is in fact driven by half-truths and faulty logic. This is crystalized through the characters of prosecutor Hamilton Burger and Lt. Tragg, the often smug, mostly arrogant officer who, like Burger, always knows he’s right.
Burger and Tragg connect the dots in the manner that most quickly takes them to their goals — arrest a murder suspect, prosecute a defendant, gain a conviction, win the case — unwilling to take the time to do more, because, well that takes time, and isn’t the truth all so obvious, anyway?
And that’s pretty much the show — Perry forcing Burger and Tragg to slow down, open their eyes, ask questions, and be open to answers they weren’t necessarily expecting or wanting to hear, with moments of dry wit salting the story. But ultimately, even though they are opponents, the three can still shake hands, each respecting the other, walk away, and even have dinner together.
More fantasy, right? Or perhaps it’s just nostalgia, because there was a time when this is how we rolled. But no more.
We live in a noisy, chaotic world where spite, venom and purposeful deceit crumble boundaries of decency, respect, common sense and perhaps most disturbing of all, integrity. (Exactly the chaos reflected in Game of Thrones. Could that in part explain its popularity?)
Facts are meaningless and get in the way of long-held opinions that support self-serving values and personal agendas. Truth is defined by what people want to believe, often bearing scant relevance to facts.
That’s the fake news world we live in today. Facts are scorned, because all they do is get in the way of the alternate realities we build for ourselves, where our values, our views, our perspectives, are the only ones that matter. And if anyone else is hurt by our values, our views, our perspectives, well then, it just sucks to be you.
In fact, today truth has been reduced to just two sides — the truth we hold (always right), and everyone else’s (always wrong). No space is left to see and understand differences, no open ground to build consensus.
No one wants to reach toward any common ground, let alone stand on it. Those who differ or disagree are demonized by those claiming a higher authority or moral ground – never a fertile field where respect, compromise and fresh perspectives can grow and move us past the despicable rhetoric that keeps pushing us back farther in time.
Okay, Perry isn’t real. But what he does in each episode should be real to us.
Perry Mason argues in a courtroom from one of two tables. From that perspective, it would seem that every argument has only two sides. But even though Perry is at one of those two tables, he really is arguing for a third side — justice. He finds it, because he’s willing to search out the paths that lead him there. (Even science doesn’t have a place at the table these days.) He doesn’t shop for facts that serve his client and dismiss everything else.
The legacy of Perry Mason goes beyond living in reruns on the classics channel. At her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding her nomination to the United States Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor said it was this show that inspired her to go into law. Since it remains the longest-running lawyer show in television history, likely she’s not the only one who’s been impacted by it.
I’d like to think that Perry Mason is more than a cultural artifact that reminds us of what our world no longer wants or needs — cars with bench seats the size of couches and pointy brasseries (seriously, how could anyone have thought that was a good look?).
But it’s also a reminder of what our world has forgotten: decency, truth, integrity, and yes, honor. Are those values really so out-dated?
Perry shows us a kinder, gentler time, when words weren’t weapons of destruction, and tough didn’t have to mean rigid. This show doesn’t need fiery rhetoric and slash scenes, because it’s about thinking. That can’t be reduced to a sound byte or tweet, because its whole premise is based on asking questions framed within a meaningful context rather than wildly flung about to plant a field of strawmen or float in an ocean of red herrings.
We need to plough over that field and drain that ocean.
Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 80 novels for the Perry Mason series, making him the third best-selling author of all time, just after J.K. Rowling and R.L. Stine of Goosebumps fame. Before the character became a hit television series, Perry Mason ran as a radio show and starred in a string of movies. The American Bar Association is now publishing reprints of Gardener’s novels, through its Ankerwycke imprint.
With all that material to draw upon, we really need a Perry Mason revival. And I just don’t mean cult followers who watch the show. We need a revival of character. We need to awaken to the fact that the only path to truth is Perry’s path to truth: Think. Ask questions. Listen with an open mind and heart. Think again. Then speak. And finally, act with justice and compassion.
And if you can’t or won’t do that, you really just need to stand down and be quiet.
And those who are willing to do all that?
Get up and do it, so we can work to bring our world back together again.
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