A staple of syndicated television in the half-century since it originally went off the air, Perry Mason is the kind of show that is so firmly ingrained in pop culture that it is easy to take it for granted. With its formulaic mystery-story approach, it can be considered influential upon any number of courtroom and crime shows, for better and worse, and it's hard to imagine a more iconic fictional lawyer than Raymond Burr's stoic, sly, and sometimes streetwise L.A. attorney.
The original run of Perry Mason started in 1957 and ended after nine seasons in 1966. From 2006 to 2013, CBS/Paramount reissued the show in half-season DVD box sets (DVD Talk's Stuart Galbraith IV doggedly reviewed every one of those sets as they came out), and last fall, all 72 of those discs were finally repackaged in a hefty Complete Series set that could double as a sturdy doorstop. Like the half-season sets, there are essentially no supplemental bells and whistles (like the ones included in the 50th Anniversary Edition sampler set), but the 271 episodes of the show (totaling roughly 230 hours) offer more than enough entertainment to keep even the most lethargic couch potato occupied for a while.
Of course, Perry Mason isn't exactly bingeable in the modern sense. If you watch too many episodes in a row, you might just find your attention starting to wander. While there are plenty of minor deviations over the course of the series, this is a show that rarely messed with its formula once it was established.
A typical episode begins by setting up the conflict in the life of Perry's future client. It could be blackmail, marital strife, strange business dealings, weird stalking -- or really anything. Usually the client will consult with Perry before anything major has gone down, but then will quickly require Perry's criminal defense expertise when someone ends up dead around 20 minutes in. Crusty police lieutenant Arthur Tragg (Ray Collins) will arrest the client with some fairly damning evidence*. Then Perry, with the help of intrepid P.I. Paul Drake (William Hopper) and his secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale), will piece together which other character is the actual culprit. He presents his evidence in court, which usually inspires the real bad guy to break down on the stand or in the audience and admit their guilt.
Needless to say, that's not how the legal system really works, but the conceit is irresistible. It doesn't hurt matters that Burr, Hale, and Hopper have a warm and likable dynamic. Watching them work together is a constant pleasure. In a similar way, William Talman is such an effective sourpuss in the role of district attorney Hamilton Burger that watching Perry and Co. get the better of him offers no end of enjoyment**.
Of course, as the series wore on, the show indulged in some notable tweaks to the formula, gimmicky and otherwise, to keep folks tuning in. The season 7 episode, "The Case of the Deadly Verdict," is the infamous show where Perry finally lost a case onscreen -- although, to be fair, he loses it early in the episode, and then has to dig deeper to clear his client's name. In season 6, Raymond Burr was out of commission for a month, so four guest detectives took over. The most memorable of these guest stars is movie legend Bette Davis, defending an incredibly young-looking Michael Parks, in "The Case of Constant Doyle." Mannix's Mike Connors also stepped into Burr's shoes in the season 8 episode, "The Case of the Bullied Bowler." Season 9 includes "The Case of the Twice-Told Twist," an Oliver Twist homage shot in color (as a test for a potential tenth season in color), as well as "The Case of the Dead Ringer," in which Burr plays a double-role as Perry and as a salty sea dog look-alike hired to sully Perry's reputation. (Burr's craggy, working class British accent is a credulity-straining delight.)
The self-referential last episode, "The Case of the Final Fade-Out," might be my favorite hour of the show (if one can be so bold as to pick a favorite), thanks to its inside-baseball jokes about the television business and slew of cameo appearances by the show's actual crew. Years later, the makers of the Perry Mason TV movie The Case of the Shooting Star tried to revive the idea of murder on a TV set, but they left all the fun of the original out.
To the right kind of viewer, Perry Mason is comfort-food viewing, plain and simple. With every last episode compiled together in one place, this Complete Series set will keep fans from ever going hungry again.
*Collins was a regular cast member for roughly 2/3 of the series, before he succumbed to illness. He continued to be credited on the show for another year and a half, until he finally died in 1965.
**There is a brief stretch during season 4 where Talman had been fired for being caught at a Hollywood party where marijuana was being smoked -- although not by Talman. After the fans rallied to support him, Talman resumed work as Perry's put-upon legal foil.