The political lesson of Perry Mason


Photo: Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) and Della Street (Barbara Hale) inspect the evidence.

My maternal grandfather Andrew Palochick (1891-1978) could reliably be found watching television at his and Grandma’s tiny home in Georgetown, Conn. when not putting in his hours at the nearby Gilbert and Bennett wire mill. His favorites were the news, Yankees baseball, “Wagon Train,” and best of all, “Perry Mason” — a televised diet as hearty as Grandma’s famed stuffed cabbage and babka, all “homemake” in her lexicon. “Put on Mason,” Oppo (as he was known) would command from the back porch from where he watched while sipping warm Schaefer out of quart bottles, getting up only to let out when he had taken in. As to whether Op’ ever poured me some brew before I had attained legal drinking age, not to mention puberty, I plead the fifth.

For those not in the know, Perry Mason, the literary creation of lawyer and writer Erle Stanley Gardner, was a fictional Los Angeles attorney, and in his televised incarnation, the signature role of great Canada-born actor Raymond Burr. In case after case, aided by faithful girl Friday Della Street and rakish detective Paul Drake, Perry would save his client (usually a sweet young thing) from a murder rap while simultaneously pinning the crime on the real perpretator — to the eternal frustration of District Attorney Burger and police Lieutenant Tragg, the Washington Generals of televised drama.

The first five seasons of the original series, which debuted in 1957, are now available on CBS All Access — over a hundred shows in all. The Wife and I have of late made it mandatory daily pre-dinner viewing, lubricated by something a bit more palatable than warm Schaefer. Of course, the plots were formulaic and contrived. So where those of “Mission Impossible,” “Columbo” and countless other hit shows. But the original “Perry Mason” is a veritable time capsule of its time and place. The cars. The clothes. The hair styles. The SoCal exteriors. The social mores. The jazzy theme song and musical underscoring. All in glorious black & white, brought to you by Sweetheart Soap, New Blue Dutch Cleanser and Beads-o’-Bleach. Smart, sexy and with delectable notes of noir, this was and is great adult entertainment.

Does Perry Mason’s geist hold any lessons for our zeit? If one were to keep score, more things have no doubt gotten better since Perry’s time than have gotten worse. Whatever the show’s nostalgic appeal, I certainly don’t regret living in our world rather than Perry’s.  But I will point out one thing that dawned on me after about the twentieth episode — something that made me yearn for at least one aspect of former times.

Part of the show’s fun is interplay between Team Mason and Team Burger/Tragg, the teams treating each other with an ice-cold cordiality that barely conceals their mutual loathing. Each team would do anything within the law, or just outside it, to gain the upper hand on the other. Rather like our current political parties, wouldn’t you say?

But on several episodes, the adversaries put their differences aside in the cause of justice. See for instance season one, episode 18, “The Case of the Cautious Coquette,”at the end of which (spoiler alert) Mason, Burger and Tragg jointly set a trap that snares the real murderer.  Despite the loathing, there is enough respect and trust between the teams to work together for a common goal and higher purpose. Something the aforementioned parties could take a hint from, wouldn’t you also say?

Before we take our leave, I need to single out William Talman, the actor who played District Attorney Hamilton Burger, for the courageous television spot he filmed only weeks before his untimely death in 1968 — the first spot of its kind. The video is grainy and Talman’s speech slurred from pain medication, but the message retains its power.

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