Saturday, October 1, 2011

Further Thoughts on Mr. Burger and the Formulaic Nature of the Series

I imagine it’s obvious by now that this blog, while attempting to be a general interest Perry Mason chronicle, has a definite pro-Hamilton Burger slant. It’s not only that I love the character and want to talk about him, but also that I feel not enough is said about him in the fandom. I know that I myself would love to stumble across a blog in favor of Mr. Burger or any of my favorite characters; hence, I write what I would enjoy reading and am gratified if anyone else enjoys it as well.

Of course, it’s not just Mr. Burger, but also his actor, whom I admire. I love William Talman’s devotion to his family and his sense of humor. I have read several articles both by and about him and have only come to further appreciate him.

From what I have gathered from these articles, William was not happy with the formulaic nature of Perry Mason, which said that his character would always (or almost always) lose the cases. The writers even had several scripts where Mr. Burger won, but Erle Stanley Gardner, who had to approve each script, rejected them all. When William realized it was never going to be different, he determined that he had to learn to be happy with things as they were. He developed a humorous outlook on Mr. Burger’s losing streak and often cracked jokes about it. He also had fun with the scenes where Mr. Burger completely loses it, particularly in The Final Fade-Out.

While it’s not the same situation, I can relate to William having to adapt to an honestly frustrating scenario that will never change. Among my favorite hobbies to take part in is role-playing. And I don’t mean the tabletop games where dice are rolled and people choose their actions based on the dice. With my kind of role-playing, each person takes on one or more characters to portray. They’re brought together on a message board or in a chat room or instant messenger conversation and enact storylines. Sometimes, due to a particular storyline or plot, one is faced with the problem of needing to have their characters react to situations or behave in ways the role-player would not choose to if they had full control over what was going to happen. To be a good sport, all that can be done in such scenarios is often to simply adapt to it and go along with what the game’s moderators or other players want.

Did William want Mr. Burger to almost always lose? No, I don’t think he did. But I admire him all the more for deciding to make the best of it. He, and the writers, did wonders with the character as far as Gardner would let them take him. Mr. Burger developed so very much beyond the blustering antagonist of the books. I can’t praise his portrayal in the series enough.

As has been said before, even though I’m certain Mr. Burger would like to win, he never allows those feelings to get in the way of seeing justice done. He accepts his losses against Perry, and sometimes actively works with Perry to bring the true criminals to light. The Prudent Prosecutor is only one of quite a few episodes where they team up, and in all honesty, some other episodes feature them working more closely together than this one does. The Prudent Prosecutor’s most unique feature is Mr. Burger asking Perry for help for his friend, which will be explored in detail in a future post. A later episode, The Shifty Shoebox, features them trying to solve the case together in the latter moments and also includes another surprise: at one point, Mr. Burger exclaims in dismay to Perry that he made a mistake. Certainly this is a declaration that likely never would have been heard in season 1 and most assuredly would not have appeared in the books.

Some people say that Mr. Burger must be incompetent, to lose so often. I honestly blame it mostly on Gardner’s refusal to even just bend the formula a bit. Mr. Burger is an intelligent man. He runs the D.A.’s office with efficiency and precision. And even though the audience knows Perry’s clients are always (or almost always) going to be innocent, some of them look pretty darn guilty. Mr. Burger does his best to put together his cases against them, investigating all the angles he and the police find. And Mr. Burger is often proving that he’s one step ahead of Perry, surprising him in court by producing a witness that could not be found or bringing evidence for the prosecution that Perry wanted investigated for the defense. Perry is an awesome lawyer, there’s no doubt of that. But if it were not for Gardner’s insistence on the formula, Perry would not win as much as he does. It simply isn’t done; it’s not realistic.

However, Mr. Burger may not actually lose against Perry as much as it might seem when examining the series off-hand. It occurred to me the other day that for every time there is a jury trial, it means Perry lost the preliminary hearing (which we usually see him win). Of course Perry himself says to Paul something to the effect of that not being important compared to the trial’s outcome. Still, when most of the time the series shows us preliminary hearings and not jury trials, it is significant and something to think about.

Upon giving the matter of the formula some serious thought, I am still displeased and stunned by Mr. Burger’s outlandish outburst in The Final Fade-Out. And as I attempted to explain before, it is not really the fact that Mr. Burger accused Perry of having the witness lead him into the trap that appalled me; it’s the fact that Mr. Burger accused Perry of doing so just to make him look ridiculous. I honestly can’t think of any time in the series, except in season 1, when Mr. Burger made such claims. He matured beyond such accusations in the other seasons, only accusing Perry now and then of some sort of “legal tightrope walking” but not suggesting that Perry was deliberately trying to show him up.

I pondered before that perhaps the real reason for Mr. Burger’s outburst in that last episode was that he was so humiliated at being led into the trap by the witness that he lashed out without truly believing that Perry was responsible and wanting to make him look foolish. That would explain why he calmed down for no apparent reason. I will add to this idea now that perhaps in reality, Mr. Burger was really yelling at the writers and Mr. Gardner for being the ones to make him look foolish; a thinly-veiled in-joke at all the years he had endured ridicule from the series’ viewers due to the formula and Mr. Gardner’s insistence that Perry must win.

After all, we know The Final Fade-Out was rife with in-jokes and sly references. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Mr. Burger was finally getting his say.

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