09 Mai 2007

JTS commentary, Part I (Perry Mason)

As a sitcom-and-drama addict from way back, I have occasionally indulged myself over the past couple of years and contributed comments to Jump the Shark. The next few posts here will bring you my gesammelte Werke.

In the last couple of seasons, Burr switched from a swept-back pompadour to a comb-across style, presumably to look a bit less fifties-like. Maybe so, but the pompadour flattered his rotund, corpulent corpus a lot better. To me, the shift in hairstyle signaled the appearance of fins--as a show with a late fifties/early sixties look and sensibility (much like Alfred Hitchcock Presents), PM by 1965/66 had a discordant ring to it. Still, eminently watchable and well-done, contrived plots notwithstanding.

Proof positive of the quality of the scripting, dialogue and plotting is the remarkable ease with which PM translates into foreign languages. I lived in Germany for two years and taught myself an astonishingly large amount of formal, official and bureaucratic German ("Amtssprache," it's called) by watching dubbed PM episodes. The characters, Mason in particular, speak with such precision and formality, always using complete sentences, that the dubbed version served as an excellent teaching tool for me. Also, it so happened that the German voice-over actors who stood in for Burr, Hale, Talman, and the rest did a superb job. The German PM sounds like PM, and this success testifies (!) to the overall quality of the show's writing, plotting and acting.

Of course, as noted, it was contrived and thus free of the more revolting aspects of real-world criminal law. Mason always tries his cases in impeccably decorated, and decorous, courtrooms with plenty of space. You never see grubby dirtballs shuffling around the courthouse, jammed into waiting rooms with their lawyers waiting for their cases to be called on the docket so that they can enter their pathetic plea bargains. Nor do you ever see Mason having to wheedle money out of some lowlife. (In the books, he's always astounding well-heeled and quite profligate, too.) Incidentally, at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, where I got an LL.M. in tax and business law ten years ago, the library has a collection of Burr memorabilia, including his copies of the show's scripts, all of which he donated. Evidently, Burr was an avid reader and something of an intellectual; one of the photos, as I recall, depicts him in his personal library, which was filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves--and from the asymmetric appearance you could tell that they were real books, too, not the fake ones some people buy to impress visitors. Well done, Ironsides!