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Perry Mason, Matlock, and McBride: Television Courtroom Dramas as Classical Mysteries by Geoffrey Henry

by Ethan Tussey

Numerous courtroom dramas have appeared on U.S. television. A few of these dramas exemplify the so-called “classical mystery” subgenre of detective fiction (Berger 1992, Riggs 1996). Also known as “whodunnits,” classical mysteries have conventions that distinguish them from other types of detective fiction, like hard-boiled detective stories and procedurals (Reiner 150). Certain courtroom dramas have the conventional elements of classical mystery tales. These dramas include Perry Mason, both the original series (CBS, 1957-1966) and the television movies (NBC, 1985-1995), Matlock (NBC, 1986-1992, ABC, 1992-1995), and McBride (Hallmark Channel, 2005-2008).

Like most classical mystery stories, the installments of the above courtroom dramas focus on a crime. In classical mysteries, an individual commits a criminal offense, particularly a murder. This act leads a detective or “sleuth” to investigate the case in hopes of finding the culprit. Using various personal traits, such as reason, observational powers, and an impeccable memory, the sleuth deduces the criminal’s identity (Reiner 150). Oftentimes, the culprit is a character originally represented as the most unlikely to have committed the crime. Perry Mason, Matlock, and McBride all exemplify what Cawelti might call the “pattern of action” of classical mysteries (Cawelti 81-91). The protagonists are all defense attorneys who represent people wrongfully accused of crimes. As part of their defenses, these attorneys must investigate the crimes to find the real culprits. Eventually, these sleuthing lawyers solve the crimes using the traits listed above. The programs even include “surprising” solutions in which the most unexpected character is revealed as the criminal.

Finally, like most classical mysteries, the three programs promote active involvement of their audiences. Specifically, producers wish to encourage viewers to try to figure out the solutions to the mysteries before the fictional lawyers reveal them in the climaxes. For example, Perry Mason’s producers treated each mystery as a ‘game show’ viewers would play by attempting to deduce the criminal’s identity (Sullivan and Robertson 14). Matlock’s producers once allowed viewers to select an ending for a specific episode. The above courtroom dramas, therefore, indicate the presence of the classical mystery subgenre on U.S. television.

Works Cited

Berger, Arthur Asa. Popular Culture Genres: Theories and Texts. Sage Publications, Inc. 1992.

Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. The University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Reiner, Robert. The Politics of the Police. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Riggs, Karen E. “The Case of the Mysterious Ritual: Murder Dramas and Older Women Viewers.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 13.4 (1996): 309-323.

Sullivan, Bill and Ed Robertson. The Case of the Alliterative Attorney: A Guide to the Perry Mason TV Series and TV Movies. Bill Sullivan, 2015.

CBS Sunday Morning - Almanac: Perry Mason - The case of a TV lawyer

On March 11, 1970 author Erle Stanley Gardner died at the age of 80. A self-taught California attorney who wrote crime stories on the side, he created lawyer Perry Mason, who became a TV staple.

from CBS Sunday Morning's Almanac (2012)
Creator: CBS
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey