Review: Perception (TNT) 1×1

A beautiful lightweight comedic detective's mind


In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, TNT
In the UK: Not yet acquired, but you can bet Alibi will pick it up

There’s a great big swinging pendulum off in the TV universe somewhere that mysteriously dictates who solves crimes on tele. First it was talented amateurs, then it was private detectives, then it was the police and now, it seems, the pendulum has swung back to talented amateurs again.

See, the police have to follow rules and if they don’t, there are all kinds of political problems – either that or your show is escapist enough that people are prepared to suspend their disbelief. But if you have an amateur consultant, they can do whatever they like, more or less.

They can also have all kinds of personality quirks that probably would count against them in an institution like the police. Of course, in a crowded televisual landscape, or even on a crowded network like TNT, which already has the likes of Southland and Rizzoli & Isles, there’s something of an arms race in personality quirks as shows try to grab the viewers’ attention and distinguish themselves from the competition.

Now Perception takes us to Defcon 2 in the quirks arm race with neuroscientist, university professor and FBI consultant Dr Daniel Pierce (Will and Grace‘s Eric McCormack), who trumps The Mentalist, Psych, Lie To Me and practically every other amateur detective yet to grace our screens. Because Pierce goes into territory even Raines feared to tread: he’s a schizophrenic who refuses to take his meds so a lot of the time, when he’s talking to suspects, the suspects aren’t always there – although they have a lot to say for themselves.

Here’s a trailer:

In Perception, Eric McCormack plays Dr. Daniel Pierce, an eccentric neuroscience professor with paranoid schizophrenia who is recruited by the FBI to help solve complex cases. Pierce has an intimate knowledge of human behavior and a masterful understanding of the way the mind works. He also has an uncanny ability to see patterns and look past people’s conscious emotions to see what lies beneath.

Pierce’s mind may be brilliant, but it’s also damaged. He struggles with hallucinations and paranoid delusions brought on by his schizophrenia. Oddly, Daniel considers some of his hallucinations to be a gift. They occasionally allow him to make connections that his conscious mind can’t yet process. At other times, the hallucinations become Daniel’s greatest curse, leading him to behave in irrational, potentially dangerous ways.

Daniel’s mental condition and offbeat manner make it difficult for him to achieve the close friendships and intimate relationships he craves. He’s in his element when solving an intricate puzzle or a coded message. But in unfamiliar situations, he can quickly become overwhelmed, and only his favorite music and a crossword puzzle have the power to make things right again.

Rachael Leigh Cook co-stars as FBI agent Kate Moretti, Pierce’s former student who asks him to consult on certain cases. Unlike her colleagues, Kate is willing to look past Daniel’s peculiarities. Also in Daniel’s life is Max Lewicki (Arjay Smith), who serves as his teaching assistant. His primary job is to keep Pierce in line and on task, whether that means grading midterms or laying out Pierce’s wardrobe for the day. And Natalie Vincent (Kelly Rowan) is Daniel’s best friend and every bit his intellectual equal. In addition, award-winning actor LeVar Burton (Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation) will play a recurring role as Paul Haley, a dean at the university and Pierce’s friend.

Is it any good?
Despite all its tricks and ticks, the only really good thing about Perception is Eric McCormack. It lacks true depth, preferring to use schizophrenia as a comedy feedline. McCormack’s character is essentially a very good puzzle-solver, which is handy because the murder-mystery of the week is basically a puzzle that needs solving rather than a crime that needs investigating. And it’s so clearly formatted as a procedural, with everything established to enable a non-serial story of the week while ticking various casting boxes and offending no one, that you could probably have been told of the show’s existence and structured it for yourself using an Ikea flowchart.

With McCormack’s character’s eccentricities stealing much of the limelight in the script and McCormack’s natural comedy timing pushing the character even further into the comedic realm away from the potentially tragic Beautiful Mind territory, Rachael Leigh Cook could have been the solid anchor that stabilised the show and rooted it. Unfortunately, Cook, who still looks about 18, chooses not to be outshone by McCormack and tries, without the aid of the script, to be as entertaining as he is. The result is a lightweight FBI agent whom it’s impossible to take seriously and who is just there to enable stories, rather than be a true character in her own right. She does, at least, get more to do and more characterisation than Arjay Smith, who’s McCormack’s personal assistant/reality barometer and nerd, but little else.

But it’s not all bad. There is a twist to the whole set-up (spoiler: his best friend/counsellor/girlfriend is an hallucination as well) that you will see coming, because it’s telegraphed the whole way through and because you might have seen A Beautiful Mind, but that does make everything just a little more interesting. The idea that McCormack doesn’t necessarily know what’s real is an equally interesting twist, and the show does at least stand up for McCormack’s schizophrenia, even while mining its comedic potential, with a lovely speech at the end about what normality is and how the abnormal may make people’s lives difficult but it might make them valuable in unexpected ways. It’s not exactly a documentary or even Touching Evil in showing the full ramifications of a mental health problem on personal relationships and the potential value of those problems, but it’s at least a stab in the right direction – although there is a slight worry that there will be a guest ‘useful mental condition of the week’ in each episode, this week’s being the apparent lie-detector capabilities of certain people with aphasia.

It’s also good to see Levar Burton acting again and Jamie Bamber from BSG is going to be popping up as a lecturer in subsequent episodes, too, so that’s something to look forward to, as well..

While it’s not especially remarkable at the moment and it often strikes the wrong tones, there’s sufficient promise in some areas that I’m going to stick with it. As a plausible procedural, it’s up there with Body of Proof, but it does have more promise as a character study and an examination of paranoid schizophrenia, all wrapped up in a comfortable, non-threatening bow.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.