Thursday, September 22, 2016

59 years of Perry on television!

It's hard to believe that we're looking at 59 years of broadcast history for our show this year. Next year, it celebrates its diamond anniversary. And for the very first episode filmed, it may already be the diamond year. I believe the first filming occurred in 1956.

The show is still perennially popular. What fuels this? Is it the acting? The stories? How has it stayed so beloved in spite of its formulaic nature and its predictability? Or is that part of what makes it so fondly remembered?

Over the summer, one of the things I've been doing is reconnecting some more with my childhood. This included finally getting back to the 1987 version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which I know I watched even though I remembered very, very little of it. It is probably one of the silliest, more formulaic shows in existence, and I find I adore it. Not so much for the formulaic nature, but because of its unbridled, unapologetic nonsense and fun, free spirit. And it got me thinking.

It isn't unusual for adults as well as children to enjoy cartoons. Looney Tunes, I believe, were originally aimed at a more grown-up audience. And they are both perennially popular and very formulaic. In the modern age, one of the most popular cartoons with both children and adults is Phineas and Ferb, which is also extremely formulaic and predictable. If you've seen one or two episodes, you know they always follow a particular pattern, no matter what screwball events happen along the way. Even when they did a ridiculous episode consisting of unintelligible "caveman talk" for most of the episode, it was easy to follow along because the viewer knew exactly what to expect from each character.

Could part of the appeal with a show like Perry Mason be that by its formulaic, predictable nature, it is almost like a cartoon for adults?

I realize that on some level it probably sounds like sacrilege to compare a drama about murder and courtroom trials to anything silly and animated. But in both a cartoon and Perry, we have definite formulas. Some people find comfort in knowing that there is a basic outline that will always play out: an innocent person has problems with someone who ends up dead, they're arrested, and Perry will come to their rescue.

Also like cartoons, Perry always features conflicts between the protagonists and the antagonists. We always expect the antagonists to be shown up as fools while the protagonists win. Some viewers, perhaps even a great percentage of them, enjoy laughing at Hamilton Burger and the police as the wrong person is arrested over and over again and they remain convinced it's the right person.

The great thing about Perry is that, unlike many cartoons, the characters are not just "one-note" characters. It would have been so easy to have made Hamilton a stereotypical sleazy prosecutor who deserves to get shown up every episode or the police buffoons with barely any functioning brain cells. Instead, Hamilton and the police are always depicted as very three-dimensional characters who honestly want justice done and are willing to listen when Perry brings hard evidence that they may have accused the wrong person. They only accuse the wrong person because they are victims of the formula. Because they are three-dimensional, it becomes difficult to believe that they are making mistakes every episode. They feel real, and real people would not constantly be stumbling like that. Everybody would be kicked out of their jobs if situations like Perry presents were really happening left and right. And so another cartoon element comes into play: we must suspend disbelief in order to enjoy what we're watching.

Of course, that is the case with most television series we watch, in one way or another. No one could be knocked unconscious as many times as Joe Mannix is and not suffer brain damage for it. But it wouldn't be any fun if Mannix had been completely given the realistic treatment. And Jim West could never fight off so many bad guys all the time and break all the furniture without seriously injuring himself. But what fun would The Wild Wild West be if the fights were about realism?

Cartoons have definitely had their influence on live-action television. Thankfully, live-action television doesn't have horrifying things happen like what goes on in Looney Tunes cartoons. But we see exaggerated fights, protagonists not suffering life-altering injuries, and the good guys winning out over the bad guys. We also see that antagonists are not always the bad guys and that sometimes they're the good guys too. Sometimes cartoons do show this, it's true, but it's sometimes in the background and not expressly stated. Some people may think the same for Perry, but it does generally strive to let the audience know that the police and the D.A.'s office are highly thought-of by Perry and that he does not see them as buffoonish antagonists. Classic television series like Perry combine some of the formulaic nature of cartoons with the realism of three-dimensional characters, and that is actually quite an impressive achievement. Here's to the next 59 years of our show!

And in a week and a half, my own anniversary will come around and I will no longer be a member of the "twenty-something" group. I'm not sure, however, that I want to change this blog's name. Somehow, the younger one is, the more interesting it seems to me when they love the classics, so "twenty-something" sounds like a more interesting hook for a Perry blog than "thirty-something." But for the sake of accuracy, I may change it anyway.