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

Curator's Note

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.


Really intrigued by the idea of these programmes as a type of 'game show' - I've never thought of it that way before, but it makes a lot of sense, the way the audience are actively involved not only in the outcome, but the solving of it - presumably there is a great deal of viewer pleasure to be had from getting it 'right' before the reveal!

I agree with you.  I too had never thought of these programs as "game shows" until I read about the attentions of Perry Mason's producers.  Like you, I felt the description of the series as a "game show" made sense. The game show description also made me think of other shows, like Murder, She Wrote, in which the producers encourage viewers to guess the solution before the reveal.  

I can attest to your statement about the pleasures viewers can get from solving the mystery.  As an avid viewer of these and other mystery programs, I get a lot of pleasure out of trying to figure out the solution before the sleuth reveals all.  I especially enjoy it whenever I correctly guess the criminal's identity.  Whenever I watch rerurns of Perry Mason in particular, I find myself having to pay close attention so that I can attempt to figure out the solution. 

Great post, Geoffrey! Like Katie, I'm really taken by the idea of crime dramas/courtroom dramas acting as game shows. I always watch modern crime dramas differently than I do any other show, because I am always on the lookout for the culprit -- and feel so satisfied when I discover that my suspicions were right at the end of the episode! Thanks for sharing.

Thank you for your comments, Hayley. I really appreciate them. As I watch those shows, I too have that feeling of satisfaction you mentioned when my suspicions turn out to be right.

I'll chime in with the crowd here--the idea of a coutroom drama engaging with audiences directly is so interesting and, from a 2019 perspective, also chilling. It's not hard to go to a dystopian place, something akin to a Black Mirror episode, in imagining the bridge between Perry Mason and, say, reality courtroom television in which the audience just doesn't guess the solution to a mystery, but acts as jury from home! Terrifying!

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