'Perception': Chic Tic

Lesley Smith

To some aspirant Frankenstein in the backrooms of TNT, this mangled marriage of Monk and A Beautiful Mind might have seemed like a shortcut to winning summer ratings.


Director: Alan Poul
Airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: TNT
Cast: Eric McCormack, Rachel Leigh Cook, Arjay Smith, Jonathan Scarfe, Kelly Rowan

United States law enforcement is on the rocks. At least that's the case on primetime television over the past decade, where cops are running so far behind the bad guys that they’re hiring consultants left, right, and center. These civilian employees offer insight of a particular kind, the mystic connection to the criminal act that no well-trained, hard-working detective could possibly achieve.

You might think professionals would be helpful in such outsourcing. But you'd be wrong. TV cops tend to seek out the fakes -- the faux psychics, con men, art thieves, novelists, and one very tight-assed forensic anthropologist. You might also think the need for esoteric illumination would indicate more complex cases, but you'd be wrong about that too. Rather, the puzzles in these shows are reduced in difficulty, making the cops' bafflement one more reason to disdain them and -- apparently -- welcome the outsider, as untrained and unlikely as he or she may be.

The latest recruit to the post-procedural cop show parade is Dr. Daniel Pierce (Eric McCormack), a brilliant neuroscientist who struggles with paranoid schizophrenia and needs a 24-hour-a-day minder to stay on track. Yet, as Perception premieres 9 July, we see that he also enthralls lecture halls full of the young and the privileged, and still has time to play guru for the FBI, at the request of his former student Kate (Rachel Leigh Cook).

To some aspirant Frankenstein in the backrooms of TNT, this mangled marriage of Monk and A Beautiful Mind might have seemed like a shortcut to winning summer ratings. But it is instead inept, and sometimes offensive, drivel, turning serious mental illness into a chic tic and woefully underestimating the intelligence of its audience. Even McCormack’s efforts to render a nuanced portrait of a talented scholar struggling to stay afloat cannot save this mess.

Despite McCormack’s efforts to humanize Pierce, but too often his hallucinations, struggles to still his frenetic mind, and escapes to visit with best friend Natalie (Kelly Rowan), who may or may not be real, are framed as if merely comic clowning. Worse, by denigrating both the acute pain mental illness causes and the exhausting struggle to sustain a professional life it entails, Perception diminishes Pierce as a sympathetic character. The show deepens this problem by its contradictory, romantic with a capital R, vision of intellectual brilliance, the cliché of genius and madness co-habiting in a single body, each a necessary condition of the other. Pierce is only valuable to the FBI because he is both brilliant and ill: he sees connections and patterns the healthy will never glimpse. The snag is that, while the tragic lives of a few mid-20th-century confessional poets gave a last shot of life to this early 19th-century myth, contemporary research on creativity has pretty much killed it. Somehow this show missed the death notice.

However problematic as protagonist, Pierce is, at least, a sketch of a character. The rest of the cast has one role only -- to react to Pierce. Moretti gasps admiration, sometimes open-mouthed, while her partner, Agent Probert (Jonathan Scarfe), oozes petulant annoyance. Natalie dispenses wry wisdom, while his teaching assistant and live-in minder, Max Lewicki (Arjay Smith) perfects mildly exasperated affection.

To be fair, the plots are so formulaic that no other acting is required. A murder occurs. Pierce experiences a hallucination that hints at the core of the crime. When a killer taunts the police and Pierce with coded messages, a B-picture World WII British code breaker, complete with moustache and oiled down hair, appears. When a big-pharma exec is murdered, a lab rat conveniently pops up to prompt Pierce to recognize the culprit. (Even the hallucinations, surely the point where someone’s imagination might fly free of the predictable, are ploddingly literal.) The team makes a few wrong guesses, and maybe someone else dies, earning Pierce a few more visits from the hallucination of the week. Pierce agonizes, then leaps to the answer.

Perception lacks the wit, sidebar repartee or enigmatic withholding that makes shows like Monk, The Mentalist or Castle pleasant, if undemanding, viewing. In reworking the Sharona Fleming character from Monk as a young male student who lives with Pierce, the effect is discordant, as Max -- the black character -- serves as the body servant for the impolite and sometimes downright hostile Pierce. Max lays out Pierce’s clothes, prepares his meals, and supplies him with crossword puzzles.

When asked how he’ll manage when Max graduates, Pierce responds contemptuously that his TA has followed so many majors he’ll never graduate. Max, in turn, evidences all the blank-faced stoicism of the servant who needs his job. Even when he goes on strike over Pierce’s rudeness, he abandons him neither to his hallucinations nor to his everyday chaos. While the show suggests that Pierce’s indifference to others is a symptom of his illness, the pleasure he takes in Max's perpetual dependence seems drawn from an earlier place and time -- say, the US of the 1950s.

Perception marks the reductio ad absurdum of the brilliant oddball as criminal consultant genre. Or maybe its preposterousness helps us see the point of this expanding genre, where fantasies of problem-solving are enacted by backwards-looking citizen sleuths.


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