Sunday, April 27, 2014

Perry Mason
God’s Son Incarnate

Raymond Burr has
Perry Mason

Between 1957 and 1966 there appeared on American TV screens the legal drama Perry Mason.1 The show was hugely popular and had a very long life in syndication. The series has not aged well however and it shows its age quite plainly. I mentioned Perry Mason in a previous posting2, in passing; here I will go through some of the aspects of the show.

The main reason for the show’s popularity, aside from the Courtroom drama aspects of the show was Raymond Burr has Perry Mason.3 Basically Perry Mason is an old fashioned flawless hero, a white knight of perfection and in many respects he is God’s one and only son sent down to save us mortals from wickedness and injustice. Perry is pure and virtuous, without flaw or imperfection. He only defends the objectively “innocent”, and he unerringly proves that they are innocent because he is the most holy and divine Perry Mason who is blessed by perfect luck and infallibility. This cardboard saint, and one dimensional hero is someone we can root for given that he is scarcely human and can only be God’s one and only son.

Given the mawkish, paper thin nature of his character Raymond Burr’s performance has Perry Mason was actually quite good but of course the character of Perry Mason is a simple-minded caricature of a Lawyer. Perry is just too perfect to be a human being; one expects rainbows and flowers to come out of his ass.

If Perry Mason - Lawyer is the personification of the White Knight / Son of God then the passion plays that he is a part of are his sacred stories that show what a blessed Saint / Son of God that he is and how we are unworthy of him.

These plays are of interest because their structure is far more rigid than the Greek dramas they are a copy of and each one follows a rigid formula with practically no deviations and virtually each story is a rehash of all the rest with slight variations to distinguish each carbon copy from the other carbon copies.

Thus each episode begins with the crime and then the arrest. Then someone goes to Perry Mason and convinces him that the client is innocent. Perry agrees to represent the person. Then things go speedily to trial. Testimony is heard it seems that all is lost. Then at the last minute new evidence is found. It is presented to the court the next day. The actual guilty person when confronted with this evidence then confesses; almost always in open Court. Perry Mason wins again and truth, light and virtue shine forth.

Again and again this rigid structure is followed without any deviation whatsoever. In effect the viewer is seeing the same show over and over again with only the slightest of variations. This sameness was of course a comfort to many viewers who would have found real variation or anything like what really happened in a real Court room hard to deal with. Thus like MacDonald’s’ food the very rote, banal sameness of the show was one of its great attractions and helped keep the viewer glued to their sets thus generating large advertising dollars for the TV network. It also helped make the show excruciatingly dull and each episode interchangeable with every other episode.

Of course the most stupid aspect of the show was the courtroom confession. Almost all episodes of Perry Mason had those ludicrous and silly confessions. Aside from the absurdity of the actual killer being present at every one of the trials. We have the further absurdity of the killer when confronted by Perry Mason’s incisive cross examination and the always coming up new evidence voluntarily confessing; the great majority of the time in open court! Let’s see how often does that happen in real life? Almost never is the correct answer. Yet we are asked to believe that this happened hundreds of times in the career of one Lawyer. In fact in virtually every case for almost a decade it happened with this one Lawyer. But then since Perry Mason is God's incarnate Son such miracles will happen by definition.

Of course Perry Mason being God incarnate almost always defends people who are completely innocent and he apparantly never defends deliberately or accidentally people who are guilty in any sense. Not for Perry Mason is the problem of someone charged with murder who killed in self defence, or someone who was insane at the time or a thousand other mitigations. No the person must be completely and objectively innocent and he infallibly only selects those who are innocent. This of course goes also with the fact that Perry Mason almost never loses! (Perry lost one case, but it is more or less openly stated that the person was in fact innocent.)

The show also had a few conceits that were to put it mildly more than a bit silly. There was for example the District Attorney who was the prosecution in the great majority of cases, who kept losing high profile murder cases to Perry Mason. In fact his record of losses, (More than a hundred murder cases in c. 10 years.) is quite startling and would make virtually anyone question his competence. It is doubtful if he would have retained his job has a Prosecutor / District Attorney.

Another conceit is the 100,000 dollars Perry got paid by his clients. Aside from being a truly enormous amount in the late 50’s – mid 60’s, this revealed Perry Mason’s true motivations. Obviously Perry Mason is motivated primarily by money. After all if he wasn’t primarily interested in cash why ask for this, then, huge amount of money upfront? Of course given this rather obvious motive just why would Perry not defend the guilty if they could pay big bucks? Why do they have to be rich as well as innocent? Of course Perry did do some pro-bono work but that was always a sideline compared to his interest in racking in the lucre.

In fact Perry Mason’s decision to usually only defend the innocent rich is of interest. It ignores that Defence Attorneys usually accept as a given that everyone deserves a defence including the guilty, aside from the shades of guilt aspects. It appears that Perry Mason is only interested in defending the objectively totally innocent. That is a luxury position that only a very few Defence Attorneys can take and very few if any who charge huge bucks upfront could possibly afford to only take rich clients who are innocent. There just would not be that many of such clients.

Another absurd conceit is that in Perry Mason Perry only seems to have one case at a time which is completely wrong for any practicing Lawyer. It simply does not happen in real life. Further it is amazing that in each Perry Mason there is a murder, then Perry Mason is hired and then the trial all of which seem to happen in a few days!? This is nonsense. Where are the delays, the time constraints, the motions etc? The fact is that it can take months for a case to come to court, if not years. Nope. Instead instant justice!

Having left out all the petty, but necessary aspects of actual justice we get this slimmed down distortion of instant justice compete with the utterly absurd courtroom confession of the actual killer who is not on trial, and frequently not even in the witness box, which quite simply happens only extremely rarely. It makes for satisfying if simple minded drama but is in the end simply dumb.

Then of course we get Perry Mason’s attitude towards his clients and the court. His attitude is that his goal is to prove his client innocent. Missing of course is the Defence Attorney’s actual goal which is to represent his/her client to the best of his/her abilities; that may not include getting a court and/or jury to find his/her client not guilty. I further note that Perry Mason seems to forget the distinction between finding someone objectively innocent and finding them not guilty. Perry Mason feeds into the notion that Defence Attorney’s main goal is to defend innocent people. Nope it is not. But then somehow a lot of people have gotten the idea that a not guilty verdict means someone is objectively innocent. No it does not necessarily mean that but most often simply means that the prosecution failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This of course means that the person is not convicted but found not guilty. This obviously does not mean the person is “innocent” necessarily.

This of course feeds into the notion that only the objectively innocent should not be convicted and that unless clear evidence points to objective innocence the person is in fact guilty. This is nonsense and it is of course revealing that almost never, (I seem to remember a few rare exceptions.), in the show does Perry Mason get someone off simply by raising reasonable doubt. He almost always gets people off by proving beyond a reasonable doubt, along with the dull courtroom confession, the innocence of his clients. The show seems to imply that this is the proper and right way to get people off serious legal charges.

Another part of Perry Mason’s attitude about being a defence attorney is that he believes that getting his client off is the most important thing and all sorts of acts are allowed if they enable him to get his client off.  Thus we get one of the most insidious aspects of the show Perry Mason breaking the law. Insuring that the innocent go free is such that mere law goes bye bye; from time to time in Perry Mason’s universe. Illegal break ins, concealing, even stealing evidence occur with Perry Mason’s approval. But then has God’s only incarnate Son, pursuing the goal of protecting the objectively innocent all things are allowed including flagrantly illegal acts. Which because they always produce evidence, (Invariably at the last minute.), that exonerate the accused we are manipulated into approving.

Finally there is the class aspect of Perry Mason’s universe. Since most of the time Perry’s clients are rich people who can afford to pay 100,000 dollars down. These clients are rich, established individuals and the persons who set them up, and/or are in fact guilty are the majority of the time jealous, greedy individuals from lower down the social hierarchy of that time. In other words there is class warfare in Perry Mason. A central motif is Perry Mason protecting the wealthy from the machinations, greed and duplicity of the lower orders; of the jealous and unsuccessful.

The upstarts must be kept down least they tear down worthy people of the upper class it seems.

Frankly Perry Mason was and is rather stilted and boring in its presentation. The show was thoroughly and rigidly utterly predictable, which I suspect was part of its appeal. The viewer could watch it knowing with absolute certainty exactly what would happen and did happen with clockwork regularity. The unexpected and difficult were ruthlessly excised so that the final product was predictable and safe. The results are in retrospect dully the same, each show being the same show to a very large extent.

And of course the fantasy land that is the Perry Mason universe remains a fantasy of God’s one and only divine Son coming to save us complete with unfailing miracles and to save the guiltless from the machinations of demonic evil ones.

1. See Perry Mason, Wikipedia Here.

2. See Here.

3. Raymond Burr would go on to play Perry Mason in made for TV movies after the series ended; which were less absurdly formulaic.

Pierre Cloutier

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