I grew up watching Perry Mason. It was pretty much the one thing that my mom and my dad’s mother, who so notoriously Did Not Get Along that Grandma actually mentioned it in Dad’s eulogy (practically the only thing I remember about my father’s funeral, in fact), could agree on. If Mom was home during the day, she’d watch reruns on TBS, which played them in those days. Grandma was always home, and she had pretty much every episode on tape by then. So that was what Grandma watched all day long. Possibly the only surprising thing about my adult fondness for the series is that I’m the only one of the three of us, to my knowledge, to ever get into the novels as well.
Pop culture has of course oversimplified Perry a bit, but most people have the basics. Perry Mason, famously played by Raymond Burr, is a big-city lawyer, specifically Los Angeles (though cases have him ranging as far afield as Gstaad, Switzerland, his primary range doesn’t extend much beyond Central California, western Arizona, or northern Mexico). His confidential secretary is Della Street (Barbara Hale); when he requires a private investigator—which is most cases—he is ably assisted by Paul Drake (William Hopper). Before Ray Collins (who got his start on the Mercury Theatre of the Air; Orson Welles called him “the finest actor I’ve ever worked with”) was too ill with emphysema to work, homicide cases were usually investigated by his Lieutenant Tragg. His usual opponent in the courtroom was DA Hamilton Berger (William Talman).
The first place everyone gets wrong is Tragg and Berger. It’s true that they are often annoyed at Perry, and they usually assume his clients are guilty. But then, of course they do; if they didn’t believe they had enough evidence to prosecute, they wouldn’t have the person arrested and tried for murder. That’s kind of how the system works. And there are two cases at least where Tragg and Berger each ask Perry to defend the accused, because it’s someone they know personally and they know Perry is the best defense attorney in LA. Further, when Perry comes across a body while doing other legal work, he always calls for Tragg, and he’s shown repeatedly to respect Berger as an individual.
Which, okay, glosses over some of the known abuses of the LAPD, for starters, and this is one place the books are a lot more blatant. We see, in the books, some of the less-than-ethical investigative and interrogative techniques used. I haven’t read them all, and it’s true that Erle Stanley Gardner had a lot of respect for police work, but there is one I’ve read where Perry’s client—and this is before the days when suspects were believed to have the right to have an attorney present the whole time—was given a stereotypical third degree, unto having the light shined in her face, only to have Tragg come in as the Good Cop. Perry calls it typical police behaviour.
Berger, meanwhile, joins Watson in the ranks of people turned by pop culture into bumblers. Hamilton Berger is never shown as less than professional, and he’s certainly never shown as unintelligent. Oh, not as intelligent as Perry, and of course we only ever see the cases where he’s wrong, because he has to lose to Perry, but Perry clearly has a great deal of respect for him. He often corrects clients and says that Berger is good at his job and just, in this case, happens to be wrong. Because the plot requires it, of course.
And, okay, it’s true that the first black person to have a speaking role on the show was a night watchman in season three, but on the other hand, Perry’s client in that episode was Japanese. Yes, Perry’s clients were usually white, but it was TV in the ’50s and ’60s. And the first black person to have a speaking role on the show was a professional. Perry’s Los Angeles is one of the most ethnically diverse versions of the era, and the minorities in it don’t solely exist to be stereotypes.
Further, the show—and the books as well—has more right about sexual politics than a lot of people do today. Just for starters, Perry asks Della to marry him several times in the books, and she won’t—because he’d expect her to stay home. She doesn’t want to be a housewife; she wants to be Perry’s partner. She sees him more and is more part of his life as his secretary than she would be as his wife, and she’s very blunt about that. And Perry doesn’t contradict her, though I think they could be a fine husband-and-wife team if she kept working.
Further, there are episodes where characters are sexually harassed and even assaulted. Yes, it’s treated as a joke when a drunk tries to get into Paul’s pants, but this is not far after the episode wherein a female character doesn’t want to talk about her sexual assault even though doing so would be beneficial for her. And it’s her boss who assaults her, too, then fires her because she resists. Another episode shows a woman being forcibly kissed, and even though the people who walk in partway through the incident see her pushing her attacker away and wiping her mouth in disgust, it’s still seen as evidence that there’s a relationship there.
You can’t watch many episodes of the show without seeing that Perry probably takes on a lot of the not-murder work he does in order to finance his availability to defend people who cannot possibly hope to pay him. The case that sends him to Switzerland is that of a girl about whom essentially nothing is known; when she “hires” him, she’s a foundling in a private school. One of his clients had been labeled a juvenile delinquent. And not only does he take their cases, he hires Paul and often multiple of Paul’s agents to do his investigating for him. His clients are paupers and millionaires and everyone in between.
Oh, there were some issues that were behind-the-scenes that didn’t make it onto the show; it’s hardly a surprise that Perry never defended a gay character, even though Burr himself was gay. (I’d have to check the later TV movies to see if that held true in the ’80s; we are talking here about just the TV series in the ’50s and ’60s.) One of the reasons Collins was kept on the credits even after his illness kept him from working was so that he would keep his insurance as an actor, because they wanted him to keep his treatment. And of course, there’s a stretch midway through the show where Talman had been fired for violating his contract’s morality clause (he allegedly was arrested at a party raided by the police that sounds a bit like an orgy, from the vague descriptions I’ve read), and fan letters were enough to bring him back anyway.
It is true that, by their very nature, detective shows are inherently about preserving law and order. Hence a whole franchise called just that, really. Perry never suggests that his clients should work outside the system. His job as an officer of the court (a phrase he uses a lot) means that he won’t conceal evidence—even though I know California law didn’t require a defense attorney to disclose all their evidence before trial the way prosecutors were required to share their evidence with defense attorneys. He never tells his clients to run away, just be hard to find. And of course, when his pointed questioning causes the acutal murder to break down and confess, they are themselves arrested and tried. But unless you’re an “abolish all prisons” type, Perry’s a pretty impressive specimen for his era, in a way that’s just seen as how he should be today.