It's been three long pandemic years since legal drama "Perry Mason" debuted on HBO to mixed reviews. Now, season 2 hits the streamer with eight haunting and hypnotic episodes bound to erase all doubts from a jury of critics and audiences. Perry, it's great to have you back where you belong.
Matthew Rhys, an Emmy winner for "The Americans," plays Mason like a gathering storm. He's nothing like the criminal defense attorney cemented in the public mind by the 1957 CBS series, in which Raymond Burr showed us a genius-level legal eagle of such flawless character that murderers would often leap to their feet in court to confess their guilt.
Not this time. The new "Perry Mason," co-produced by Robert Downey Jr., who once planned to play Mason, hews closer to the 80 novels written by Erle Stanley Gardner, an attorney who began the books in the early 1930s, the Depression period in which the HBO series is set.
As portrayed by Rhys, Mason is a more complex and conflicted character than even Gardner imagined. A World War I veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Mason musters out as an alcoholic, motorcycle-riding divorced father working as a private eye in Los Angeles who becomes a lawyer -- he passes the bar after only 30 days of study -- to win a case he takes personally.
That case made up the first season of "Perry Mason," which was often upstaged by the superb production design, costumes and music -- all recalling "Chinatown," the 1976 film noir classic also set in the 1930s that still managed to evoke the political corruption of the Watergate era.
Season 2 borrows that inspiration by having Mason take on the race-and-conspiracy-loaded case of two Mexican Americans, Mateo Gallardo (Peter Mendoza) and his brother Rafael (Fabrizio Guido), who are accused of murdering Brooks McCutcheon (Tommy Dewey), the son of a power-grabbing oil tycoon ("Sound of Metal" Oscar nominee Paul Raci).
Rhys comes up aces with his season 1 cast, notably the incredible Juliet Rylance as Della Street, Mason's secretary, whose legal knowledge far surpasses his. Cheers as well to Chris Chalk as Paul Drake, the Black ex-cop who now works as Mason's investigator, Justin Kirk as conniving District Attorney Hamilton "Ham" Burger and Eric Lange as the scarily intimidating Detective Holcomb.
And let's not forget the incomparable Shea Whigham as Pete Strickland, a Mason friend who finds his loyalties tested working for Burger. Past secrets, criminal and sexual, come back to bedevil these characters, whose cloudy morality only enhances our interest in them.
Among the new batch who entangle Perry and Della in their web are the ever-superb Hope Davis of "Your Honor" as socialite power broker Camilla Nygaard and sass queen Jen Tullock of "Severance" as Anita St. Pierre, a Hollywood screenwriter with a thing for Della.
All of them harbor secrets. Who can you trust? Damn few, though Katherine Waterson shines as Ginny Aimes, a schoolteacher who instructs Perry's young son, sparks a romantic fire in his daddy and appears unfazed when Perry takes the kid to the movies to see "King Kong."
Still, unlike the giant ape, the key movers and shakers in the series tend to lurk in the shadows until they're ready to spring. Less whodunit than who isn't guilty of something, "Perry Mason" season 2 is a bonfire of tension that uses the past to ignite racial, economic and political issues that feel as timely as right now. Fasten your seatbelts.