TV SETS across the country have become accessories to a cruel fraud. Every Sunday night, at 7:30 p.m., a small group of amateur lawyers and police takes over a Los Angeles courtroom. They make the most outlandish claims about who they are.
One man, the one with the unchanging vacuous expression, says he is Lt. Arthur Tragg, Homicide, L.A. Police. Another claims to be Paul Drake, the smooth, effective private detective famous for his giant expense account and uncanny sense of timing.
A short man with a moustache is addressed as "counsel" by a "judge." He says his name is Hamilton Burger, infamous hard luck L.A. County district attorney. And a quiet, unexceptional blonde insists she is Della Street, the smartest legal secretary in the world.
The American public would be well advised not to indulge the claims of these people. They are impostors, Impertinent, Blasphemous, Defaming of character.
Consider this nonsensical scene: A beautiful nervous rich woman who is being blackmailed seeks out a thin junior executive (or so he looks) at a jet-setters' party. "Oh, I'm so glad you're here, Mr. Mason. Now, I don't expect you to understand all this at once, but I--oh, I'm so confused--I..." The man, Monte Markham, seems to agree that he is Perry Mason.
The scene slides out of the television, groping, searching the ranks of the credulous to find the most gullible people in the land. Even at a Senate hearing, where witnesses tend to seek a similar audience, it is rare to find an imposter on the stand.
The new Perry Mason is, of course, defeated by the memory of Raymond Burr--by his forceful presentation, by his impressive physical presence, the slightly aloof wit he could direct toward Burger and Tragg, the consistency of his presentation. Monte Markham tries to badger witnesses in the Mason style. He tries to intimidate Hamilton Burger. But when a witness cracks, or when Burger allows Mason a point, Mason seems to have won only by edict of the script. Monte Markham doesn't win his cases; they're granted him by CBS decree.
The new show lacks substance. The scripts of the original show had to be complex and subtle to fit their material into a single hour. The first 60 episodes were based on entire Erle Stanley Gardner novels, and after the stock of novels ran out, Gardner's script supervision insured the same level of complexity. The new show is simple-minded. Threats of blackmail are explained in detail, then explained again. Paul Drake no longer gives a quick account of the information he has gathered. Instead, he shows home movies of the people he has tailed.
Why has the Perry Mason show been castrated? The quality of television declines every year. The "vast wasteland" former FCC chairman Newton Minow described in 1961 has by now been sown with salt. In 1962, The Defenders aired a show dealing with abortion. The advertisers complained, but public letters to CBS were overwhelmingly in favor of the show's sensitive consideration of the problem. Eleven years later, all the dramatic series of the early 60s are gone, and the controversy is over a stupid show called Maude.
The Defenders died years ago. So did Slattery's People and every other show with any substance. And now Perry Mason (which even in its original form survived on style, not dramatic presentation of substantive issues) is back in a nearly worthless form. Perhaps the other two shows were too intellectual for their audience, but Perry Mason lasted nine years and declined in the ratings only after CBS scheduled it opposite Bonanza. It was immensely popular in its original form, yet in revival it has been reduced to the vapid TV norm.
Then why make this show at all? A description of the old show, in terms the TV industry can identify with, explains quite a bit:
Raymond Burr made about a million dollars a year during the last three years the series ran.
CBS set up a capital gains shelter for Burr called Harbour Productions Unlimited because it made enough off the show to give Burr a little extra on the side.
Paisano Productions, which produced the show, made $10 million over nine years. Most of the profits went to the executive producer, her husband and Gardner.
Any show called Perry Mason should be an easy money-maker, CBS must have thought. I hope they're wrong. I hope the new show fails before it molds Perry Mason and his colleagues into forgettable characters. The Mason created in 1933 by Erle Stanley Gardner was a volatile, often unscrupulous lawyer-sleuth. Raymond Burr toned the man down, but added a dynamism of his own which made Mason the sort of fascinating static character best suited to an hour-long TV show. Monte Markham, though somewhat better in the second episode than in the first, appears to have whittled Mason down further without adding anything of his own.