In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, TNT
In the UK: Not yet acquired, but you can bet Alibi will pick it up
Formats are funny things. They’re what enable a show to run a long time, and they give viewers an understanding of what they can expect. Sometimes the format is almost incidental to what the story is really about, particularly if it’s a cop show. Wallender is a cop show, but it’s essentially an excuse to look at the misery of existence. CSI is actually a science show (or it used to be, anyway), set within the format of a crime show, with scientists performing experiments and using science to solve problems.
Perception is actually quite an interesting psychology show, trapped in a very pedestrian cop show. Perception‘s format is over a century old: the consulting detective (Sherlock Holmes originally, but Will & Grace‘s Eric McCormack as a university professor here) who helps out the stupid old police with their inquiries. It’s so cliched and inherently boring now that it’s hard not to fall asleep at the mere thought of the format. It doesn’t help that FBI agent Rachael Leigh Cook has the gravitas of Barney the dinosaur and that no one else except McCormack gets any worthwhile characterisation, despite the best efforts in episode three by the producers to give Cook a background and someone to talk to who isn’t McCormack.
But throwing that format to one side, just as we do with Sherlock Holmes, we can look at Perception‘s real asset: the psychology side of things. Here we have the fact that McCormack is a paranoid schizophrenic who hallucinates, sometimes helpfully, sometimes unhelpfully, sometimes tragically in the case of (spoiler alert)his best friend and former girlfriend, who doesn’t actually exist, or may do but isn’t the person he actually talks to. Now in the first episode, this was played for laughs and revelations, but subsequent episodes have done a pretty good job of conveying at least some of the difficulties and sadness of McCormack’s situation.
Then there’s the guest condition of the week. Now, just as CSI does with its relentless use of scientists as detectives rather than as laboratory workers, Perception does take liberties. McCormack gets called in on cases that shouldn’t initially need him, since the FBI does have very talented group of psychologists working for it. But the show usually then moves on to reveal conditions in witnesses and perpetrators that are unusual and might not be within the usual range of the FBI’s expertise – something where you might actually call in a consultant for. Here things become interesting, because we’re now solving different kinds of crime from the usual suspects – we actually have things going on you don’t normally see in cop shows.
Now how long this can carry on before it gets ridiculous remains to be seen. Are we going to have an unusual condition of the week in every episode? Well, if CSI can have a new science thing every week for 12 seasons, I guess we can have at least a season or two of interesting psychological problems here.
Despite the show’s obvious flaws – Cook, the format, etc – Perception is still shaping up as a surprisingly interesting weekly viewing. Jamie Bamber as a rival lecturer might make the format a little more interesting, judging by his one appearance so far, although he’s coming across as a grade A tool at the same time. There’s actual pathos and novel problems to solve. The producers are dialling down the wackiness and making it slightly more thoughtful, so that’s McCormack’s neverending array of ticks are more obviously coping mechanisms for dealing with his disability, rather than gimmicks. It still feels very formulaic, but if you can look passed all these problems and don’t mind cop shows, it’s certainly worth repeated viewing.