Mason, Rockfish & Nursing

Today, Jonathan & Shannon discuss heroes and my daughter tells me that, visiting her oldest sister, she finds her tivoing Perry Mason, the series my family watched together in my youth. The cable news networks are obsessed with trials that seem no more real than Mason’s (for all that they are). So, I thought I’d rescue another one of the essays I did during that short year in which I was unemployed – had sold my business and hadn’t started teaching. So, below is a recycled essay, a tribute to Perry Mason and to James Rockford. Yes, I watch far too much television. And my tastes are not those, in general, of this blog’s audience. But, you know, tv isn’t all that bad if you don’t turn your mind off. (I put this under our division of Arts & Letters – surely that is too lofty for such series.) And thanks for letting me do this kind of thing.

And, of course, I am not profoundly moved by Perry Mason. He does not, as real heroes do, show us the tragic nature of life, the clay feet and because of that the even greater transcendence. He is not real. But as good fiction can, he brought me pleasure. And as the representation of character often can, the series helped me understand myself and what I value better.

Addendum (to myself, I assume no one is still drawing this up). Googling for an old teacher, I found him used as a reference in this “Perry Mason: The Authorship and Reproduction of a Popular Hero” by J. Dennis Bounds. I haven’t read it, but didn’t want to lose it. Nice epigraph; Mason observes “That’s what I like about the practice of law–it’s an adventure. You’re looking behind the scenes at human nature. The audience out front sees only the carefully rehearsed poses assumed by the actors. The lawyer sees the human nature with the shutters open.” from: Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat

Perry Mason & Rockfish

Faith in the eventual supremacy of reason.
Judge Learned Hand (quoted by Perry Mason)

Perry Mason reruns have a compelling hold on me, now, over forty years after they were made. I confess an irrational passion for that formulaic, mythic, and, somehow, profoundly satisfying series. Even now, surrounded by the most schlock of commercials on the most schlock of stations, the series retains a restrained and powerful dignity. Perhaps the ads, sometimes for plastic surgery and sometimes for ambulance-chasing lawyers, set it off as color ones contrasted with the black and white text in the old New Yorker, giving each a strength they might not otherwise claim. (One we may miss.)

Partly, this satisfaction comes from the shallow, indeed, easy, resolution. We realize the world is not that certain, conclusions not that knowable. But those beautifully framed shots and formulaic plots provide a fulfillment few modern shows can touch. The strengths of the series – partially as a series and partially through my own quite personal reaction to it – come from various sources. One of those is that it embodies (and, indeed, reveals in ways that the early producers and directors could not have realized) the late fifties and early sixties weltanschauung and the post-World War II self-contained hero. Secondly, it combines two features of the American romance – mythic hero and courtroom resolution. It is well done – the photography strong, characters interesting, wit dry; and the audience is involved, waiting for the surprise of that concluding confession. The combination of relatively expensive production values and a structure that constrains but “works” make it visually satisfying. The series may not be Bergman, but it is good, formula television. It has also become a touchstone in my life; somewhere, in syndication, it is always there – consoling and predictable and encompassing.

Perry Mason as The Organization Man

Perry Mason comes to us out of the fifties – sexy convertibles with long fins, steak dinners in large, comfortable booths; party girls and debutantes; playboys with good stereos; bomb shelters and blonde furniture; men defined by their work and their stoicism. It defines fifties sophistication – not the thirties chic of William Powell and Myrna Loy; not the impersonal and modish seventies of Sean Connery and technology – but a kind of stolid, secure sophistication when Christian Dior’s name had clout. The current trend toward paranoia, seeing vast and complicated conspiracies is murky next to these straight-forward, sharply delineated pictures and the complex realism of people whose actions are chosen, responsible. This show reflects that time and that ethic, but does it without losing us; in Mason, the fifties are saved from camp by the pervasive irony in Mason’s dry tone and laconic observations. And by the complexity of the vision: the tensions between the establishment and battling lawyer. This lawyer resembles Whyte’s organization man, as T.V. Guide observed, having “about as much color as a corporation executive on the way to, and slightly late for, the 4:12 club car from Grand Central.” With his obsessive regard for his work, his trust in the judicial system, his large caseload of professional, business, monied, and often politically powerful clients, Mason is quintessential fifties power. This seems a paradox – but in television, paradoxes save a series from the sentimental. Here, the personification of the establishment battles the authorities of the government (personified by the police in their logical but false arrest and the district attorney’s office in their logical but misguided prosecution) to fulfill the aims of society.

In true fifties style, his work is objectified and separated from his private life; in fact, it is his life. If we seldom see the Beaver’s father at work, we seldom see Mason at home – if we do, he has fallen asleep over a brief and is awakened by a potential client who has mysteriously gotten his unlisted home number. Dramas and comedies were clearly separated in the fifties, as was work and home (and, indeed, as man and woman, father and son). In the conclusions Mason, with some of the supporting characters, is often on his way out of his office and heading to a late dinner after a long day’s work. The series apparently reflected the work ethic within the series. Did this passionate involvement reflect the vision of its cast and crew, or did the cast and crew reflect that of the scripts – or, more probably, were both an enactment of this fifties vision of the workplace? Whatever the reason, Burr was later to describe his regret that he spent the years he should have been developing relationships and beginning a family absorbed by this series. His sexual ambivalence (or not so ambivalent ambivalence) probably played the major role; still, his desire to immerse himself in external detail following the deaths of two of his three wives and his young son is understandable. And it is quite human, given a lapse in time, to mix character with self in memory.

Mason’s profession gives him an identity – we know nothing of his ethnic background, his family, his childhood, even his college years. He is the generic war hero of forties movies returned to civilian life. He is ambitious but we see that ambition in simple terms–he wants to win the case. His ambition is abstracted, appears to be egoless. Mason is not alienated; he is a part of his community but this community is confined by his work. The episodes with beatniks and coffee houses are striking: while Mason epitomizes cool, he disdains nihilism. He has not dropped out of the system; he works within it. The nature of his relations with others – especially the basic cast of Della Street, Paul Drake, Hamilton Burger, and Lieutenant Tragg – is professional, calm, witty, and remarkably unrevealing. In an Esquire article from the period, Stephen White defines “sophistication” as an urban phenomenon, requiring what he describes as “personal awareness” and an “association with money.” These are all elements central to the characterization of Perry Mason. But, I suspect, most importantly, these characteristics lead to the kind of control, a lack of vulnerability that was then viewed as cool. Mason’s opacity was emphasized by Burr’s growing size. In today’s jargon, we might find him impaired, unable to commit, but in the fifties, that was how manhood was defined. Burr’s own marginality gives the character its tension. Our youthful hearts may have beat a bit faster when we saw Paul Drake – he was much warmer, more vulnerable – but our attention was always on the omniscient Mason, who stood in the very quiet center of each episode.

Set in Los Angeles, the show follows the tradition of the hardboiled dicks portrayed by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, Ross McDonald. This rich, popular tradition uses setting to express a certain kind of America: ahistoric, rootless, active. The Los Angeles courthouse and its neutered statues, certainly Mason’s office and apartment, have an impersonality, a lack of place; they represent generic urbanism. Occasionally, however, the “westerness” of California is emphasized – as characters drive across the desert, dig oil wells, or come to the big city as models aiming toward acting; these do not, however, give a strong sense of place. The most Californian character is, appropriately, the hardboiled dick, Paul Drake, played by Hedda Hopper’s son. Relaxed, competent in his profession, Drake is characterized by the flashiest and fastest of convertibles (Mason, too, drives convertibles, but they tend toward darker, more staid colors.) Drake’s broad and manly competence is coupled with naivete; he repeatedly refers to himself as “a growing boy” and bumbles, albeit attractively, in his pursuit of the opposite sex. This ingenuous charm contrasts with Mason’s greater worldliness, greater opacity. He is the boy to Mason’s father and his warmth foil to Mason’s self-containment.

Such characterizations were governed by our culture’s reaction to World War II. We needed to come to terms with what America offered and exactly what it represented, and, underlying all this, the war experience. The younger generation returned – having experienced a world far different from the community they had left. Probably control, objectivity, self-containment were valued because of the mystery – the tragedy, the sense that they had stepped to the edge of the abyss. The world abroad had defined itself chaotically; the troops returned with a new longing for American traditions, placing a greater importance on the masculine and the feminine roles, valuing calm in the face of grief. This is implicit rather than explicit. Mason’s history in the Navy during the war is alluded to in only a few episodes – not as often as Rockford’s Korean experience, certainly not as much as Magnum’s Viet Nam.

He does not reveal himself in any way and, therefore, does not reveal his secret knowledge until it is pulled, not from him but, rather, from others. He is the possessor of secrets, the man of self-discipline. He has a “knowingness” of culture, politics, business. This was self-awareness as White defined it and sophistication as the fifties saw it. His lawyerly skills are broad (from courtroom drama to iron-clad wills). Such a characterization contrasts sharply with the angry young men coming out of England. He is also bears little resemblance to characters from Tennessee Williams; these were the years The Long Hot Summer and Humphreys’ Home from the Hill were filmed. Their characters are more rural, more vulnerable, more passionately involved, more sexual. American culture remained Southern and Northern – the gothic and the transcendental, the story-teller and the essayist. The Southern tradition was more courtly, more charming; it was given to exaggeration and emotion – it was “hot.” The Northern one was analytical, abstract; it treasured irony, self-containment, objectivity – it was “cool.” Mason is also influenced by its west coast setting: active, ahistorical, severed from community.

Mason’s approach to culture is used to define him. For instance, he is attracted to West Coast jazz; used in the background, he listens to it; when defending a jazz musician, he indicates he has followed his client’s career. The contrast between this use of music and that of the more active Peter Gunn is interesting – in Gunn the voice has importance and the milieu is gritty, in Mason the strength is instrumental and milieu is slicker. We can also contrast this character with the more tempestuous Matlock, played by Andy Griffith; in his Atlanta setting the jazz is southern and Matlock not only listens but performs. His vulnerability, his emotions are those of the wily and ingenuous country lawyer. Mason, however, in another setting and another tale, would be the Memphis lawyer, or, perhaps, the Philadelphia one; but if we accept his world, we don’t use the word slick. Matlock is fully engaged in each situation, while Mason remains an outsider. In The Rockford Files, we visit a Barbara Mandrell concert; an episode is set at a Jimmy Dean-like sausage factory. This says something about the Rockford’s class and history–his father is a truck driver, an expert on country music, and came west from Oklahoma. The Okie a generation or so later opposed to the urban cool of Brubeck. For their histories, their approaches, their values are often expressed in their music.

Mason enjoys urban abstract art; again, he follows the career of a prominent artist, he hangs abstract art in his office. He deals with sentimental art with a politely expressed, gentlemanly irony. Interestingly, this is an area where Della Street does not follow him. She jokes about which end is up as she hangs the work; she distances herself from its abstraction. She expresses the emotions, the sympathies, the loyalties that we are then led to assume Mason feels but does not reveal. The marked division between sexual roles in the fifties are emphasized in this series; women are attractive, emotional, given to passions. They like realistic art, they enjoy vocal music – they like to be in touch with people; men, on the other hand, are interested in abstractions. In a later series that purposely stands these traditional roles on their head, Rockford has a minimal interest in abstract or even expressionist art; he likes realism as he likes character. His response to people, like Della’s, is not always objective, but is consistently good-hearted and perceptive. On the other hand, his representatives to the logical world of the courts (in the first years a woman and in the later ones a disbarred lawyer) try to pull him back from his emotional, impetuous and often sympathetic responses to others. And Beth, his first lawyer, is more likely to appreciate expressionist and abstract art.

Without Street, Mason would be cold; without him, Street would be sentimental. When babies are involved, Della’s maternal nature (and, indeed, ticking clock) is implied in her dropped and occasionally misty eyes. Her relationship with Mason is not, perhaps, as mysterious in terms of its sexuality as a modern viewer might suppose; the relationship more clearly echoes that of such fifties situation comedies as Leave It To the Beaver, Father Knows Best, or The Donna Reed Show where the parents are united in the business of running the home and making decisions that involve both the husband’s logic and the wife’s sensitivity. Specificity of sex is less important than the role of a woman’s and a man’s separate but equally valid visions. The women’s empathy and wisdom carry the situation comedies; in the dramas, the men’s virtues are triumphant. In these, women are often beautiful, sometimes dangerous, sometimes courageous, often at risk — but, essentially, secondary.

We don’t see Mason at the opera or ballet. He is a hefty, singularly masculine man and these forms of culture are not “masculine.” They are not “men’s” art; their abstract and ritualized plots describe intense, often self-destructive, romantic, gothic emotion. This would be anathema to the Mason character as he has been developed. We do see him relax – over a steak, fishing; this fits with our limited understanding of him: he was in the Navy; more importantly, he is at home in the open air, but he does not lose himself in such a ritual as the southern archetype of the hunt.

For the conclusion to work, the entire episode needs to powerfully lead to the conclusion that the truth can be known and justice applied. The opening scenes establish a setting in which such faith could be accepted without irony. As a portrait of the late fifties and early sixties, it poses problems for the contemporary viewer. Its certainty sometimes reveals the worst of its time. Steeped in philosophical relativity the fifties were an attempt to make order of the disorder of the forties; our culture hung on with its fingernails to a hope that the world had an underlying justice, expressed through the government. The communities of the thirties had been torn apart as an entire generation was uprooted and moved about as pawns on a giant chessboard. When that generation returned, neither they nor their communities were the same. The GI bill and increased urbanization severed them even more thoroughly. As the neo-humanists tried to define a world at the turn of the century that was restricted by religious ethics without the religion, I suspect the fifties were trying to define an order that was familial, communal, but did not have the familial and communal guts – and assurance – of the old order; perhaps most importantly, the sense of place had diminished.

Perry Mason, the lawyer for the defense and theoretically outside the system, is well within it. As the Esquire article described the modern sophisticate, he was “associated with money” – an association viewed critically in the series of the late sixties and seventies had a positive aura in the late fifties and early sixties. Mason’s clients are often wealthy and powerful (he almost always ends up with a good-sized check; he often gets his clients because he has been the lawyer for a large company; his relation to the defendant may have been established because he handles the complex business details of transfer of stock, of wills, of contracts or because they knew each other through business acquaintances). He appears to have a solid position both within the legal community and the social one. The assumption that the system will work and that he is part of it is inescapable. This is no poor, legal aide lawyer battling the overpowering state system to obtain acquittal for his poor but honest client. The very fact that the police and the district attorney always lose obviates any sense we have that the state is all-powerful. In this treatment, the very formula becomes an argument for the system as it stands. Mason’s “association with money” is also an association with power; it leads to the implicit political statement of Perry Mason, which appears to be traditional and cautious liberalism; it strongly argues that the system works. Maybe slowly, maybe imperfectly at first, it, finally, works. The conflict between what should be and what is may be played out repeatedly, but this is transitory and what should be becomes what is.

The question of the validity and strength of Perry Mason lies in how much we suspend our disbelief and how much we accept the world as presented. If we think of the show in realistic terms, then we have a problem. Obviously, the police are pretty incompetent and always pick up the wrong culprit; the district attorney is always sure he has an air-tight conviction when we know his culprit is innocent. If this is the world as we know it, then society is pretty scary. If we see Perry Mason as a mythic character who arrives to defend those rare cases in which the police have been misled, the message is simpler. We can contrast this with the police dramas of the eighties – such as Hill Street Blues; here, the police and the prosecuting attorneys are treated with much sympathy: they are, after all, the heroes of the series. We are given the sense that the police are more often right (they would have to be right more often than poor Tragg) and the prosecuting attorneys have developed cases against the appropriate criminals (again, they would have to have a better batting average than Burger). But, we also see, in episode after episode, that the system does not work. Something has gone wrong. The contrast between these two series is full of ironies – the first argues for the certainties of the fifties; the other, more self-consciously liberal, is also less optimistic. The first appears to argue for vigilance against police and prosecutors who are quite fallible; the second often leaves the viewer stunned, with a sense that laws are used as often to protect the guilty as the innocent. The first argues against a police state by finding it inept; the second shows a world in which the police are more often powerless than inept; they are digging holes in sand. In Hill Street Blues, the lawyers – prosecuting and defending as well – often seem to be sophists, losing sight of truth while using technicalities; in the earlier series, despite Burger’s repeated references to Mason’s “pyrotechnics” and “sideshows,” the structure of the trial and the rules of evidence are always, finally, seen to be at the service of the truth. Both Mason’s and Burger’s motives appear to be pure and on a higher plane than merely that of defense and prosecution – after all, Mason’s clients don’t just get off, the guilty party is found; Burger may lose but his officers arrest the guilty party by episode’s end. Of course, this is not realism nor does it pretend to be. But, whether realistic or mythic, the implicit message is clear: in one the system works; in the other it doesn’t. In one, our government and our society are willing to and capable of producing justice; in the other, they are not.

Such law was paternalistic, but it was also generative. When justice prevails, life is, well, solid. Facts may be subject to a variety of possible interpretations but, in the end, only one interpretation was truly correct. Law, justice, common sense, and sympathetic humanity were not at odds but were merely different approaches to, well, perhaps to truth – a truth that was complex since many had motives and, indeed, many came to terms with the fact that they had willed the murder if not performed it. Nonetheless, the murder had been done by one person, a person who often then tried to shed the blame on the innocent defendant, a person who had taken another’s life – this was knowable, this was prosecutable, and this was punishable. It was not simple but it was also not chaotic.

The Organization Man and Rockfish:
The Mythic and the Realistic

American novels approach experience from spatial points of view which indicate narrative points of view. The mythic novel looks up at the hero or heroine – enlarging protagonists and making them opaque; such a character has simplicity, force, and speaks to us as an archetype does. Their gestures are large, motives unrevealed but passionately held. This is the perspective of traditional romances – the Brontes, perhaps; certainly Hawthorne and Cooper. In the determinist works of Norris, Dreiser, and Crane, the narrator speaks with a heavy omniscience, looking down upon characters as subjects of an experiment. Such a characterization gives less dignity, less power; the works, however, are absorbing because they involve the reader in archetypal forces acting upon a character. This naturalist perspective is used in the grittiest and most reportorial of television narratives – say Dragnet or Top Cop; these series don’t have Dreiser’s pessimism but do have his milieu, his sense of the character as acted upon rather than in control. Our most particularized understanding comes when characters are described within the conventions of psychological realism: here, the narrators penetrate characters’ minds, letting us see hesitations, ambitions, fears, and memories. Part of the power of Perry Mason arises from the director’s use of a mythic perspective – one which perfectly fits Burr’s strengths and weaknesses as an actor. Perhaps we can best see how this perspective works by comparing it with the psychological point of view of The Rockford Files. We can see how each hero fits into a traditional literary genre and the assumptions that underlie those narrative choices. The characteristics Campbell found in the mythic hero appear in the mythic narrative – the character without a father that appears upon the scene, unconnected to family, place. Rockford, on the other hand, is a realistic hero – one characterized by place, family, time, detail.

These two series share many traits – both were carefully and expensively produced; these production values give a density that enriches the viewing experience and helps in syndication. Both names emphasize the strength of the male leads and, in numerous interviews, the amount of work each puts in is described by their contemporaries. Both are chunky, big, and quite mature men. Mason had more dialogue and more episodes per year, but in both the protagonists anchor the series. Both are set in California; both have numerous, well-acted supporting characters and both use repeated casting in other roles. Not surprisingly, both received several Emmies and both appear in syndication. Conventions are repeated in almost every episode – the more static courtroom scene in Mason, the active chase in Rockford. Neither is issue-oriented, but both are reflections of and on their contemporary culture. Both are relatively dense – in characterization, in the allusive reverberations within the dialogue, in the development of supporting characters. The difference in the cultural milieu from which they develop structures different narrative voices. Within these quite different formats, however, both serve as moral norms. In the final judgement scenes, theirs is the narrative voice that affirms the perspective of the show. We see the convention in “Book him” in Hawaii Five-O (which became something of a joke, but in which the convention was a way of commenting on a particular episode). In Murder She Wrote, J.B. Fletcher’s raised eyebrows comment on the inadequacy of the moral values of the guilty party; the strength of her persona (and indeed, of her acting) keeps this repeated cliche on the brink: sometimes falling into absurdity and sometimes working.

Despite the intensely structured format of both series, Mason and Rockford more flexibly express their judgments. Mason is objective, cool, rational; Rockford is more often subjective – his irony is directed towards lapses in sentiment as much as in morality. And, as becomes this emphasis upon emotional connections, he is less often in control and his point of view is less solidly enforced at the end of each episode. Part of Rockford’s charm is his vulnerability; a character involved with others and tugged by commitments is vulnerable. Logic is less vulnerable, less penetrable. This contrast is developed throughout the Star Trek series, sometimes between Spock and Bones and sometimes between Spock and Kirk (Kirk is more vulnerable but both stronger and more complete than Spock).

Mason takes a mythic perspective – one in the tradition of, say, The Scarlet Letter, The Leatherstocking Tales or even Moby Dick; The Rockford Files, on the other hand, has the psychological, realistic narrative of the novel of manners of Portrait of a Lady or The Bostonians. We first see Hester Prynne, escorted to and then standing at the scaffold; we view Natty Bumppo silhouetted and larger than life against the horizon: we can not enter such a character’s mind. Such a character, quite simply, is. We can see, in the actions, a change within – but how that change was effected is below the surface we are presented. In Perry Mason a strong, visual point of view is developed by black and white photography – the series uses the stark, static, mythic angles of the forties melodrama (it is small-screen, less full of technical innovation but with the remarkable balance & quiet in the despair of, say, The Third Man). We begin by seeing the courtroom – although the structure of those opening shots varied, they consistently set a scene, established a tone, and defined the mythic framework within which the story would take place. Raymond Burr’s massive presence portrays monumental solidity.

The opening sets Mason in his element: the credits show us a court room; a case is being (or, in other opening credits will be) tried. Perry Mason stands and, perhaps, turns: static, powerful, intent. In some, he dominates an empty courtroom, with the pensive, challenged, hooded visage of a man immersed in a puzzle or abstract problem. In others, he appears to know an answer that lies within the evidence he shows to the opposing attorney and his detective, Mason’s secretary and Mason’s detective. He is not smug, but he is self-contained, sure of himself. No doubts flicker on his passive, mythic, self-contained countenance; keeping this look from smugness or cockiness, he keeps it from camp. When it is strong, this is the look we associate with integrity – one that contains within itself its own definition; doubts are abstract rather than personal, concerns objective rather than subjective; he is a lawyer first and a man second. These short scenes complement the measured force of the theme. Compare this with the rapid and often violent action that opened M-Squad or The Untouchables. Despite the murder mystery plot, there is little violence; the importance of the murder, however, gives a texture to the conversations, the courtroom drama; it imbues them with tension.

Some modern producers seem oblivious to the import of traditional works. Therefore, a producer can take a powerful original, such as Shadow of a Doubt, and set it in a more “interesting” period – negating its critique of Fascism, its allusion to America’s (and England’s) long and intense relationship to Germany and German culture, obliterating its attention to the details of small town life during World War II, as defined by Thornton Wilder. A no less telling if less ideological change came when contemporary producers changed the plot conventions of Mason and made them active. This diluted the power of talk. Most of all, it diluted the power of Mason as played by Burr. In the late fifties and early sixties, he was a static but towering character, keeping knowledge within himself, powerfully pulling attention inward rather than expressing outward. In the late eighties and nineties, Burr was brought back, now gray-haired and massive, to play Mason. This massive, gray age could enhance the mythic nature of the hero. Instead, the courtrooms are relatively noisy; the plots revolve around hired killers who therefore have more limited motives, more limited psychological development. Car chases are now employed to bring “action” where the old episodes had plenty of suspense. Mason is shown “in action,” but that is not his strength – his is a verbal, cerebral, analytical character; this persona is not defined by stepping from a helicopter. Such action also indicates a character a bit less “in control,” and that seems true of the modern characterization. He thunders more but controls less. The plots also seem to partake more of paranoia, more of the sense of a confused world. Bulk such as Burr’s can be effective – these are the metaphors of late James as he describes the size of his characters and, indeed, as letters and notes from his contemporaries describe, the use he made of his own enlarging size at social occasions. Burr’s graying bulk can be Jamesian (or, in our American tradition, always given to excess, the size of Marlon Brando presiding over Apocalypse Now or Orson Welles, huge and hugely padded, in Touch of Evil), or it can be absurd, silly, obese. If it is in action, it is just that. Burr hasn’t the range of these two but the strength he does have is diluted in these modern episodes. The loss is more striking, because we can see, in those early episodes, when he was large but not especially heavy, mature but not gray-haired, that ability to draw attention into himself.

The contrast of the introductory frames with those in The Rockford Files is illuminating. Mason is an opaque character that we cannot “know.” The Rockford Files is a work of realism. Our spatial perspective, like that of George Eliot or early James, is even with them – we enter the protagonist’s mind and view with empathy. First, we see Rockford’s answering machine pick up on a caller and we are with him as he hears his listener; from the beginning, we are participants in his world. We listen not to the dramatic opening of a fast-paced detective show but rather the calls coming to a man whose appropriate response to life is bemused irony – calls from a plumber who won’t be over and hopes Rockford can use the public restroom a few more days; from the repairmen who is fixing his stereo but discovered major parts were broken six months after it went into the shop and three months after the warranty expired. These describe the world as we know it. But this is not the world of Perry Mason: we can not imagine his car not being fixed, his bathroom stopped up. And, as the camera pans back, we see the solitaire game spread out before the phone – Rockford does not spend his spare moments on corporate boards.

Next come the scenes that establish Rockford’s relation to his community. There are large economic differences between his world and Mason’s. Mason’s apartment is elegant, with a large fireplace and a broad couch; his office is expensive, well-furnished, set high within a large, and clearly well appointed, office building. Rockford works out of his low-budget trailer. His private life and professional one are hopelessly intermixed in ways that leave him with little control over either world. Instead of a competent receptionist, Rockford has an answering machine. When Mason goes out, he treats his friends to a steak dinner at an attractive restaurant. In these opening scenes, on the other hand, we see Rockford shopping. We are involved in his decisions as he shops for groceries. This scene sets the tone as Mason’s opaque glance at the legal brief does. But the difference in perspective is dramatic. Rockford is transparent – we see expressions pass across his face that tell us he is not happy with shopping, with hamburger, but, especially, with the price of the meat. When we do see him eat out it is often at a Mexican take-out, where quantities of hot sauce disguise the taste. And, there, the wind whips the napkins away or a sniper can get a shot at Rockford’s client. When Mason, Della and Paul visit a Mexican restaurant, the humor comes from Paul’s machismo and the pitcher of water he downs after unwisely eating too much picante too fast. Unlike Paul, Mason knows his own limits. Reaching beyond those limits would make him vulnerable. Rockford, on the other hand, is always dragged, by his emotions and his entanglements with family and friends, beyond the level of his control. While this contrast underlines the difference in social class, the point is one of vulnerability and penetrability. Money buys comfort and with comfort comes control – in an expensive restaurant the wind is less likely to blow away napkins, the hero analyzes situations without having to pick up the food order; Mason’s friends are people of substance and power who expect his help within a structured, courtroom setting. And his friends are innocents – he defends Paul Drake, but his trust in his innocence is steady and justified. Rockford, on the other hand, is besieged by friends who are sometimes guilty and often soiled. In psychological realism, the world and its demands interfere and compromise the mythic telling of the tale – they add detail and “reality,” but take away concentration; it adds psychological truth and takes away archetypal truth. Most of us find both profoundly “true” but each has a different kind of “truth” to tell.

Rockford is set in the midst of a familial community. In these opening scenes, we see him in movement and connected – to his father, to his friends – arguing, hugging, fishing, laughing. Set on the beach, Rockford’s Los Angeles is rural, certainly less sophisticated. He loves playing Oklahoma oil men in con games; his father and he are Oklahomans that have ended up in California, his father retiring and he setting out to be a private detective. The sense of identity is more complex, more familial, more regional, more “real” than Mason’s. Perhaps the greatest contrast comes in the numerous episodes focusing on someone Rockford met in “stir.” This convention helps develop gritty plots. But it also pictures a very different world from Mason’s – where a man can be sentenced unjustly (as Rockford was), where the world is not ordered and the guilty are characters given depth and humanity, where a network of relationships demands a hero’s loyalty and affection even when the characters can not command respect. One of the most exasperating recurring characters is Angel, a man with no loyalty to his friend and a user – but one for whom Rockford feels responsibility as much as affection. He also feels responsible for his father, who is affectionate but tends to see his son as a failure. Rockford’s attitude toward life is a warm, bemused, participatory, and often victimized irony. Mason uses irony to assert control, Rockford uses irony to contrast the world as it is with the world as it should be.

Rockford has various relations to those around him: both the used and the user, the needed and the needed. He uses his friend Becker, the policeman, and Angel uses him; eventually an episode is developed where he comes to Becker’s aid, but the inequality of these relationships become the subject of lengthy and emotional speeches – Becker weary of Rockford and, in another episode, of Rockford, finally truly angered, shouting at Angel. Mason, even in the earliest episodes, is paternal, authoritarian, generous even, in his irony and assurance, toward Tragg and the more emotional, vulnerable Burger.

Rockford’s relationships with women are meaningful; his unwillingness to fully commit is a motif in one episode, but, given the conventions of such a genre, he makes firmer commitments than one might expect. (Certainly, his position out on the economic and social limits of society are seldom attractive to even relatively unconventional women.) The women in his life – whether the hooker played so beautifully by Rita Moreno or his extremely effective lawyer or the female psychologist that recurs in later episodes – are not easily stereotyped. In important although quite different ways, these women are more worldly and stronger than he. He is goodhearted, wise, gentle, kind and has a bearlike embrace that comforts them – but he can also be naive about the larger system, a bit bumbling. He is not sophisticated but he is also not foolish.

These differing characterizations lead to quite different conventions. Perry Mason moves steadily, indeed, inexorably, toward a courtroom denouement. This convention is characteristic – generally implicitly rather than explicitly and often through metaphors – of novels describing character development. Self-consciousness is internal, assumes responsibility. More importantly, the “truth” in these moments is a reordering of perceptions of physical truths and moral values, a perception which aligns previous experiences and gives them meaning; each experience and earlier analysis is a step toward this moment of recognition, this definition of the self. Perry Mason is neither judge nor accused; he is the narrative voice who draws from a character (one as opaque as he if the suspense is to be built) an anguished cry and confession; this outburst sometimes springs from guilt and responsibility and sometimes betrays an inferior, immoral, less complete system of interpretation. This convention assumes a central, integral “truth” which can be revealed about the nature of the defendant, the murderer, the accused; character is not constantly shifting but a strong core, sometimes obscured by momentary actions and incomplete interpretations. That core is essential to religious autobiographies – the self, which is an expression of the soul, is a solid, three-dimensional, “given.” The courtroom denouement is an attempt to define, give boundaries to, that definition of self. And, as in spiritual autobiographies, the souls of men and women are equal; out of all proportion to the world as we know it, women are defendants and women are murderesses. When the world is one of moral responsibility, women can stand equally. When the world is one of physical violence, women are less likely to stand as equals beside men, more often victims, less often perpetrators. And, reflecting this reality, women are not the defendants or the murderesses in more gritty, more realistic shows.

While villainesses appear in Rockford, they were few and far between–more often guilty of a scam than a murder. Women–both professional and blue collar–are treated with respect. These roles–representative of their time–are more often ones of power within the establishment than they are in Perry Mason. (Of course, there are many professional women in this long-lived series, but certainly they are rarer.) The nature of the two puzzles, however, gives women a different equality in the earlier, apparently more traditional, series.

Rockford, on the other hand, has an ambivalent, more relative definition of character; for instance, he holds to a futile hope that Angel will become a decent human being. But, he has a strong sense of his own identity, which becomes the moral norm of the show. His irony is repeatedly directed at people who search for answers in simple and programmatic ways; for instance, the woman who loses herself in a religious commune after life as a flower child. Set in the California of the late seventies and early eighties, much of the satire is directed at value systems that don’t work – communes, academia, cafe society, consciousness-raising groups. Perhaps the strangest attempt to define themselves is that of the two young hoodlums from New Jersey, who kill, “on spec” as Rockford describes it, a young tough who is a nuisance to the local mobster. This, they figure, will be the ticket to his circle and, therefore, to the definition of self that comes from proximity to such power.

One of the most poignant episodes shows Gandy, his friend from prison, coming to terms with his own responsibility. Searching for the murderer of his wife (a murder for which he served a prison term), he finds that she had committed suicide, rigging the act to place blame on him. This was revenge for the abuse she had long suffered at his hands. Her children, who had set out to kill him when he left prison because they believed he had killed their mother, must come to terms with the fact that it was a suicide, that he was the reason she gave for wanting death, and that he was their father. The show is not wrapped up neatly; assurances and systems can not give answers that soften such moments of recognition. Several have semi-political messages–one is very critical of the grand jury system, several are critical of politicians, and the staple villains are big business, especially big business that intrudes upon our privacy.

The allusions to Shakespeare that reappear throughout this series contrast the tragic, heroic drama of high art with the realism of television. And, we, as watchers of television, get the joke, but are still as likely, perhaps, to associate the quotes from Shakespeare with Hollywood Squares as The Merchant of Venice. We see action from Rockford’s perspective–a fact of the car chases which characterize this series. The camera angles are carefully chosen to involve the watcher: we are in the car with him, glancing at the side mirror, glancing at the rearview mirror, involved in the chase.

The tension differs from that of courtroom scenes – drama arises from feelings that are less introspective and more active; in one, we fear that the moral order may be obscured by an unjust conviction, in another, we fear that the moral order may be destroyed by violence. One is more cerebral, the other more visceral. Rockford involves us through his warmth, his vulnerability (the repeated car chases accentuate this openness), and, finally, his affection for others. Mason involves us through his cool, his command, his “knowingness.” His respect for others is key – if Mason appraises someone and finds them worthy of defense, then they must be innocent. We find the warmth of Rockford’s arm around the shoulder, the affection of his long and deep laugh attractive, but we also find the cool appraisal and deeply committed respect that Mason gives heartening. Rockford is capable of deeply held emotional commitments; Mason’s commitment, on the other hand, is professional and analytical but no less thorough. We want Mason to shake our hand–to believe us and respect us; we want Rockford to throw his arm over our shoulder, to like us and ask us in for a beer.

The Organization Man and the Nursing Mom
Popular culture plays to its audience, neither Perry Mason nor The Rockford Files pretended that getting ratings was not their raison d’etre. They are not high culture. However, since I am quite willing to sit through a Perry Mason episode for the third time as I am willing to read The Golden Bowl a third time, but would seldom read even an enjoyable mystery such as Emma Lathan’s or complex ones like Le Carre’s and P. D. James a second time, the reasons must be complicated and personal. Devices and Desires is a better mystery than a single episode of Mason. Why, then, do I watch them repeatedly? And why do others? After all, the series continues in syndication, repeated twice each day on the handful of channels we get through cable.

Perry Mason is paternal; others tell me they enjoy it because they remember watching it with their parents – especially their fathers – as children. Perry Mason comes out of our parent’s time and speaks with our parent’s voices. To many of us, Mason became mixed in our minds with our image of not only what a man was (as defined by fifties culture) but what our fathers were. Of course, fathers seem opaque, mysterious. My father just happened to look the part a bit more than most and his greatest virtue, an acerbic wit, echoed the style of Mason.

For many years in graduate school, I did not have a television. And later, I seldom watched. But, we moved to a new town, got cable and I had a baby. Theoretically I was finishing my dissertation but in fact I built her nursing schedule and my housecleaning around mid-day sessions with Perry Mason. During the years that followed, my infant was weaned and I began a service business. Five years later, I had another child. And, again, I would try to work out my schedule in terms of my business, the curled up warmth of that second child, the older child in her last year at Montessori, and, finally, that series – still being rerun. In the years that followed, the business and the children grew until six years later, another infant was born. And she cried for her food and snuggled into my arms as I turned on the television, content to nurse her and watch these reruns yet again – juggling the demands of the business, a child in grade school and another in junior high and a husband doing research overseas. What I am describing is sentimentality, is obsession, is, indeed, addictive behavior. However, let’s humor me and assume this reaction is more peculiar than stupid.

What are the causes? First of all it is entertaining, it is well photographed, it is suspenseful and witty. Probably it was also a way of working out my relationship with my father – who died during my eldest child’s first year. Our relationship was not good but his vision more than any other’s defined the way I look at myself and my world.

But the picture presented is one that is especially attractive to someone who is needed by three children and responsible for a service-oriented, tense business. Entering the cool, well-lit office of Perry Mason is entering the simplicity of black and white. Mason’s car would not break down and no two-year-old would ever flush a diaper down to clog up drains throughout the house; his copiers would not falter in the middle of a mortgage-paying job. He is in control and slowly, methodically, below the surface, accumulates his evidence. At certain times in our lives we need certainty. Those years of wonderful, sensual chaos were ones in which I longed for calm and as each segment opened with his commanding presence, I felt calm; for the next hour, things would be predictable, funny, suspenseful, involving, and, finally, solved. I also watched Rockford, and took pleasure in the chaos he encountered – he helped me laugh at everyday irritants, Perry Mason helped me escape from details. Rocking and nursing a baby, who dozes off as the strands of Perry Mason are played out was pleasant; probably the fun came in part because that generic urban life seemed so far from dirty diapers and sour milk, from my rocking chair and the bassinet beside me–or, indeed, from demanding customers with impossible deadlines and employees going through some adolescent crisis or other. I had plenty of realism and loved it. But I needed an hour-long vacation each day.

Ideologically, this attraction was complex. I felt a deep and profound joy in my womanhood at having my children. And with that came a need to see reality as a place where my girls could be fulfilled, could find dignity, peace and lasting happiness. We want the society in which our children mature to be civilized. We do not want to bring our children into terror or chaos. I can not imagine returning home from watching Road Warrior or even Apocalypse Now, the latter of which seems to me truly art, and deciding to engender a child. Such a response seems perverse. Frankly, after watching an episode of Hill Street Blues (which I had long loved) in which a small child suffocates after closing himself up in a refrigerator and then looking down at the infant asleep in my arms, I began dreading watching that series and soon stopped (my husband never looked at another episode). Despite the absence of any sense of family, the sentimentalization and distancing from infants, toddlers or even children, Perry Mason describes a social order in which laws work and when laws work, civilization can take place. The series assumes government is representative and honest. The stubbornness of the police is tempered by their desire to ferret out the truth. The justice system grinds slowly and gets off to many a false start, but it ends up triumphant.

This is not the bleak vision of a series such as Inspector Morse, which is conceived in a society that feels itself meaningless and decadent. Watching–and especially reading–that series alone would tell a reader the English Empire has fallen. Morse’s interaction with women is charming but often cynical. The vitality of Mason’s society reflects fifties optimism, it tells us about the prosperity of its time, the optimism of the baby boom. I can not give this to my children; I liked to enter a world where I could. Or project one. But a burgeoning economy wasn’t the main gift I wanted for them.

The three babies in my arms were women and the role of the women in the show was often subservient–secretary, receptionist–and not one I want for them. Certainly the plots do not reflect society–the women are much more often guilty than in our society as a whole. They are more often held responsible. Guilt is less often seen in terms of hormones and more often in terms of morality than in other series, then, indeed, in the world as the police blotter records it. I see this as complex and believe something firmly: my daughters will have self-confidence if they firmly believe they have purpose, if they know they will be held as responsible–their culpability, their morality, their actions and their visions–as a man. Perry Mason describes a rational world and a rational one is one in which they can have dignity. I leave the political gender puzzle to others; here, I will go with my gut. What I do know is that I was comforted by this vision, in which both women and men were treated with respect and both were held responsible; more importantly, the order, as artificial and constrained as it might appear in terms of realistic techniques, is just. In such a society of restraint, women are people–victims and murderesses, suspects and witnesses. They are not objects–victims, trophies. No, not in that last courtroom scene. Then, they are innocent, they are guilty.

They are capable of great good and great evil within the dimensions of this series. They are held responsible. I want this world for my daughters–far more than I want to give a false and neutered liberation. I want a world for them in which they can nurse their children and start their businesses, in which their voices will be listened to–in the classroom, at the dinner table, and in the court. And in each of those places, they will be expected to argue with clarity, logic, evidence, thought.

Our government is flawed; it was also flawed in the years of Perry Mason. Still, its ideal is a judicial system which dispenses objective, appropriate, rational, and wise justice. Without such an underpinning–if verdicts are not attempts at approximating the truth, if our society does not value reason–it can not protect the weak nor can it help protect us from ourselves. Only in a world that values tolerance, justice, and civility, can we approach self-awareness. Then my daughters will be first protected, and then, as they mature, held responsible. This characterizes maturity within a civilization. And such responsibility gives meaning; dignity and deep pleasure in life require meaning. Only in such a society–protecting and demanding–can my daughters be truly liberated.

3 thoughts on “Mason, Rockfish & Nursing”

  1. Didn’t I read this essay in “The New Yorker”, or in my mind, does it simply belong there?

    There’s only one essay I’ve read that gave me equal insight into pop-culture media and ‘what it all means’ and left me a similar sensation of having a deep truth explained to me for the first time clearly. That essay looked at the low budget sci-fi movies that were produced from the late forties through the late fifties. According to the essayist, in those post-atomic, jet-age years, those movies expressed our new found cultural fascination with science and the scientist, both previously icons of derision, and our deep fear of what wonders or nightmares they might next unleash on an innocent and unsuspecting humanity. Godzilla, a figure I’d always found completely laughable and not the least bit frightening or convincing, was cast by the author as symbolic of the weapons of the US military in WWII: the common Nipponese going naively about his/her own business when out the blue, out of the east, out of the fathomless emptiness beyond the shore, comes sudden, indiscriminate horror and chaotic, overwhelming destruction; just like that delivered by B-29s ten years before. The entire society mobilizes to stop it, yet cannot. It disappears as quickly as it came, leaving collapsed building, raging fires and piles of dead in its’ wake.

    The UFO, the alien species, becomes representative of our fears of the “other”, the alien culture, alien race; not sharing our values, our familial bonds, our community, bent on our destruction or our submission. Very similar, the author positted, to our fear first of the Japanese and the Nazi fascist, then of being overwhelmed and occupied or annihilated by the godless, inhuman communists. I was never able to watch campy old science fiction movies quite the same way after reading that.

  2. Ginny, Thanks for this major effort. At 8,700 words this bad boy required printing out to be devoured at leisure. I will examine it and provide some thoughts in response.

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