Perry Mason Exec Producers On Season 2's 'Wonderfully Messy' Starting Place [Exclusive Interview]

This post contains mild spoilers for the season 2 premiere of "Perry Mason."

HBO's "Perry Mason" is back, and the second season starts not only with a bang, but with a fire. If you've seen the episode, you may or may not know that the flammable event we saw unfold is part of real Los Angeles history.

Deciding to include that occurrence in the show, however, came after the creative team decided where they wanted their characters to go emotionally. "I would say first and foremost that we always start with our characters," co-showrunner Michael Begler told me in the lead up to the season 2 premiere, later adding that they had to "pick and choose" what historical happenings would "organically work" as they built out the story that will unfold in the upcoming episodes. 

I spoke with Begler and executive producer Susan Downey about how they approached crafting the second season, including where they wanted to take the characters of Perry (Matthew Rhys), Bella (Juliet Rylance), and Paul (Chris Chalk), and what it was like walking onto the locations and sets dressed out to feel like the 1930s.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'With Perry, we really loved this idea of imposter syndrome'

I live in Los Angeles and I'm a big fan of that era of Los Angeles, and I think both seasons really capture the essence of that era. When you were approaching the second season, there are some real life events pulled from it. I'm thinking specifically of the first episode, with the Lux gambling ship burning. When you were breaking the story, how do you work to incorporate real L.A. history into what happens on the show?

Begler: Well, I would say first and foremost that we always start with our characters. That comes first. Where are we going to put Perry? Where are we going to put Della, Paul? And then it's just through all the research that we do [to decide what historical events to add in], which is so fun, as you can imagine. The good and the bad is there's just so much. You have to pick and choose which things will organically work as we build out the mystery and we build out the court case, are going to be those things that we get to combine. But again, first and foremost, we want to make sure that it isn't just about the city. It is about our three mains.

Downey: And we surround ourselves with incredible experts of the time. We have consultants, whether it's an L.A. historian, a legal historian, or someone who was an expert in the Mexican community. We are always trying to make sure that we create something very authentic.

You actually touched on one of my other questions on the balance between characters and the plot and the setting. To expand on that a little bit, when you were sitting down to break season 2, how did you decide where you wanted to take Perry as well as Juliet and Chris' characters?

Begler: For [co-showrunner Jack Amiel] and I coming into second season, the table had been set so well. But as Susan has said before, at the end of the first season, you have the super friends coming together and they're all going to work together and it's like the future is bright. But once the party's over and the dust settles, there is the reality of who these people are. They're going home to themselves.

I think for us, with Perry, we really loved this idea of imposter syndrome. He's still a very, very raw, fresh lawyer. He didn't go to law school, he jumped that. So there is so much for him to learn. And as you've seen in the first episodes, there is something that haunts him terribly. And I think that makes him question stuff. I think that, to us, was a very interesting place to start him.

I think to get the opportunity in the second season to dive deeper into the worlds and to the personal lives of Della and Paul was really important.

'To be a criminal lawyer, you are literally taking someone's life into your hands'

You mentioned there are things that happen in between season 1 and season 2 on the show. Without getting into spoilers, inklings of that trickle through. Was that a jumping off point for you — just trying to make sure there are ramifications from what happened in the first season to this one?

Downey: Oh, yeah. Well, I think also just for the reality to hit Perry in the face that to be a criminal lawyer, you are literally taking someone's life into your hands, and you're going up against the system, the fight, all the nuances and details of the case. But at the end of the day, it's about people, it's about humans, it's about humanity. And it was something that we really wanted him to wrestle with.

Obviously, in the first season he was haunted by some choices that he made back in the war that had to do with him believing he was doing something for the greater good of those individuals. Here he thinks he helped Emily Dodson and what's really the fallout of that, and how is that going to affect his life moving forward, if he's going to continue to be a criminal attorney? And can he turn away from it if he feels it's too much, or does he want to keep moving forward?

It's a wonderfully messy place to start. The great thing with the three leads is that they are all messy individuals who really want to do right, but they're faced against, again, just who they are as people, which is imperfect, and a system that is wildly corrupt and flawed.

'The minute you're stepping onto either a location or a set, you feel like you've been shot back in time'

When you were looking for locations, were there any particular sites you were really excited to shoot on or get access to?

Begler: We had such an incredible team of production designers and location managers, and they found all of the gems. We weren't saying, "Oh, we have to shoot here because the scene takes place in this sort of thing." It was more they found a place, and then when we went into that space and got immersed, when you have all the extras and all the props and everything put in there, you really felt like you were stepping back in time. And to me, that was always the most exciting thing.

Now, I will also say selfishly that one day we did shoot at the Huntington Garden and I could ride my bike there. That day I particularly loved.

Downey: I thought Santa Anita was pretty darn cool, too.

Begler: Yeah, Santa Anita was insane.

Downey: Yeah, that was pretty amazing. I mean, it was an exciting second season because we did get to go to other areas, and as Michael said, we have incredible craftsmen and women on the show who really bring it to life. So the minute you're stepping onto either a location or a set, you feel like you've been shot back in time. Every detail is authentic to that time period, whether it's going to be captured on camera or not. It just helps everybody who's involved really feel like they're in that time and place.

Season 2 of "Perry Mason" premiered on HBO and HBO Max on March 6, 2023, with new episodes available each Monday.