Petitioning the court: Set Perry free

May 10, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

What do you do when the star of your series dies -- especially when he's the be-all and end-all of the show?

In the case of Raymond Burr as Perry Mason, NBC has decided to carry on with the series, pretending Perry's busy in the next office and, any minute now, he could come walking through the courtroom door.

Bizarre is not the word for "The Case of the Lethal Lifestyle," which airs at 8 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2). Watching it is a little like talking to someone who thinks Elvis is still alive.

Hal Holbrook, whom one otherwise tends to think of as a sensible actor, plays "Wild Bill" McKenzie, a yahoo lawyer from Utah who wears hats indoors and drives around on a motorcycle. Wild Bill agrees to substitute for Perry at a speaking engagement because someone has mistakenly booked Perry to be somewhere else that day (yeah, the big courtroom in the sky).

Anyway, while he's speechifying at this hotel in place of Perry, an old friend of McKenzie's is accused of murdering a TV talk-show host. Naturally, McKenzie has to help his old friend out.

Not quite so naturally, Perry's old investigator -- excuse me, Perry's current investigator -- Ken Malansky (William R. Moses) agrees to help McKenzie. Of course, Della (Barbara Hale) signs on, too -- just to keep herself busy until Perry gets back, you understand.

The mystery they investigate is fourth-rate, which makes it fit right in with the rest of the production.

Robin Leach plays the talk-show host who gets killed. It turns out he's been blackmailing a number of celebrities whom he's profiled on "Lives of the Wealthy and Well Known." Natch, all the celebrities are suspects.

All of the dirt he had on the suspects -- Diahann Carroll as a star who's now a recovering addict, Dixie Carter as an NBA team owner, Robert Englund as a movie director, and James Stephens as a chess champion -- is conveniently left in the late TV host's room. Videotapes, files, contracts, photographs. It's not exactly Sherlock Holmes territory. A maid opening the wrong door could have done as well as Wild Bill in cracking this case.

Come on, NBC, show some class. Give up the ghost. Perry was the franchise, and the franchise is gone. Admit it. Deal with it. And let Perry rest in peace.

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