Perry Mason Never Dies

July 23, 2009

Things sometimes move slowly here at the Classic TV History blog.  (It is, after all, mostly about old stuff).  That’s why I’m a bit late in noting that a television classic made an unexpected and widely reported appearance in the news last week. 

During soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, a question from Senator Amy Klobuchar prompted Sotomayor to mention Perry Mason as an influence (one of several the jurist pulled from the realm of popular culture).  That’s Perry Mason the show, not Perry the man: Sotomayor explained that as a youth her sympathies lay with the series’ fictitious district attorney, Hamilton Burger.  Sotomayor went on to offer a fairly specific example of how the relationship between Mason and his adversary inspired her to become a prosecutor herself:

“Perry said to the prosecutor, ‘It must cause you some pain having expended all that effort and to have the charges dismissed.’

“And the prosecutor looked up and said, ‘No, my job as a prosecutor is to do justice, and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and an innocent man is not.’ And I thought to myself, that’s quite amazing, to be able to serve that role.”

I guess Raymond Burr was right when he told author David Martindale that “Perry Mason awakened people’s interest in our system of justice.  For a lot of people, it still awakens that interest.”

Later, Senator Al Franken – appropriately, a former television personality himself – followed up by making the jokey but not totally irrelevant observation that Hamilton Burger was kind of a loser.  A legendary loser in the annals of TV history, in fact, and so how exactly did Sotomayor settle upon him as a role model?

Sotomayor then gestured, holding up one index finger, and Franken followed her train of thought by referencing one of the famous canards in television history: that Perry Mason lost only a single case.  Franken and Sotomayor joked about how neither could remember the episode in which this event occurred. 

Perhaps that’s because it’s apocryphal, sort of.  In The Perry Mason Casebook, Martindale explains at some length the circumstances under which Mason actually lost three legal decisions during the course of the series’ 271 episodes.  But those losses were either asides to the main storyline or set-ups for scenarios in which Mason did triumph.  It wasn’t as if Perry ever actually got thoroughly trounced by the hapless Hamilton Burger and watched as an innocent client got hauled off to the electric chair thanks to his legal missteps.

I think it’s probably a good sign for the state of the nation that our leaders are starting to display some evidence of having spent too much time watching television.  But I wish that, if television history is going to be the topic of the day on the Senate floor, someone would consult an expert beforehand.  I, for instance, can think of a couple of follow-up questions that I would have liked to see Senator Franken ask. 

One is, how come Judge Sotomayor was watching Perry Mason instead of The Defenders?  There’s room in the television universe for both of these concurrent but polar-opposite takes on our legal system, one of which had nothing to do with reality and the other of which shoved it into your face.  Perry Mason has been enshrined over the years (escapism is unkillable), while The Defenders is largely forgotten now.  But The Defenders was a show that actually examined issues, like race and abortion, upon which Justice Sotomayor will soon be ruling.  The Defenders also depicted a world in which prosecutors sometimes prevailed over defense attorneys, even when the defendants deserved to win.  I can live with a Supreme Court justice who has a shelf of Perry Mason DVDs in her office.  But I would rather have had a Defenders fan.

My other question would have been, was Hamilton Burger related to the former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger?  Because some things run in the family.

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