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June 15, 2013

TV Review – Perception Season 1 (2012)

by Master Pillow

Perception is a classic textbook case of a show in its first season going through tough growing pains with a wildly vacillating level of quality and more than a few road bumps that almost torpedo it in the early going that make the first quarter of the season rife with narratives that often feel far too gimmicky and convenient almost as if the writers continuously found themselves forced into corners and grasping madly at straws. However, as I always say in regards to television series, it is nigh impossible and even ludicrous to judge new shows on only a few episodes as critics are often forced to as the medium itself allows for much longer character and narrative arcs to slowly reveal themselves whereas a film usually has a much faster cadence.

At first glance Perception certainly has a setup that at once feels almost far too familiar focusing on that now incredibly thin concept of a lead character that is essentially wildly eccentric yet possesses extraordinary mental talents. Already, the ghosts of other shows such as Lie to Me, House, Monk or The Mentalist spring forth or even the movie A Beautiful Mind. Perception is most akin to the latter featuring a genius-level university professor named Daniel Pierce (Eric McCormack) who is barely hanging onto sanity due to being a schizophrenic ever since he was diagnosed with the disease at the age of twenty-two. As the series opens it is quickly revealed that Daniel is no longer taking his medication, much to the chagrin of his teaching assistant Max Lewicki (Arjay Smith) who, functions in an additional capacity as Daniel’s conscience always trying to keep him grounded and distracted to “fight” his mental condition.

However, as luck would have it, a former ace student named Kate Moretti (Rachael Leigh Cook), re-enters his life not as a romantic interest, although the show is quite obviously leading in that direction, but as a member of the FBI who seeks his help catching a criminal. Daniel is certainly intrigued and accepts which basically sets up the entire first season of the show as the intellectual professor aids Kate in a series of bizarre cases while at the same time attempting to keep his sanity from slipping.

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Perception’s conceit, which is much more prominent in the first half of the season, is that Dr. Pierce’s schizophrenia leads to hallucinations that actually end up assisting him in whatever case that particular episode is revolving around. It is not as if a guest star shows up and monopolizes a ton of screen time but the showrunners have these hallucinatory characters appear from thin air as a kind of hokey plot device meant to visually give form to how Pierce’s subconscious is processing the evidence at hand. While these short sequences can be somewhat endearing, such as the episode where JFK (Robert Culp) actually appears, they also tend to give the show a kind of fairy tale atmosphere which belies Daniel’s most serious mental condition.

This allows the first episodes to erroneously give the impression that Daniel’s schizophrenia is being played by the scriptwriters with a degree of dishonesty by allowing him to work with his disease almost as a complete afterthought and romanticizing his hallucinations as a means to help solve the case. Anyone who has seen or known a schizophrenic will understand how debilitating it can be and the heightened levels of paranoia, frustration and anger that could potentially flare up without sufficient treatment.

Thankfully, the showrunners must have noticed this detrimental side-effect of giving form to Daniel’s thought process and attempt a mid-course correction by slowly downplaying their use and at the same time allowing the narrative about Daniel’s condition to organically evolve into the serious territory that it requires. At the same time they thoughtfully weave in a new character named Natalie (Kelly Rowland) who is revealed to be Daniel’s closest confidant that functions in a far more effective light than any hallucination possibly could.

Part of the problem with penning a lead character who frequently sees visions is that it also allows the scriptwriters to essentially “cheat” by forcing viewers to constantly wonder if what they are watching is really taking place or if it is some elaborate mental construct of Dr. Pierce’s schizophrenic mind. While the show does lapse into such sequences it has to be stated that it is not overused to the point where viewers will feel irritated or deceived yet it is a potential pothole that is always present and one hopes the showrunners do not pull this particular trick out of the bag too often. We really do not want something like Dallas’ infamous “all a dream season” taking place unless they want the show to tank hard.

I realize that Mike Sussman who worked on Star Trek: Enterprise co-created the show but my advice to him would be to quickly jettison anything too fantastical such as overly relying on hallucinatory exposition as it leads to massive issues that are akin to Trek’s technobabble that allow writers a narrative crutch and an easy “way out” to fix plots that seemingly are headed in the wrong direction. It might also be wise to lay off the visions of famous figures as well as oftentimes they feel far too ham-fisted in execution.

These structural issues aside it has to be said that this show, much like other series and films featuring eccentric leads, succeeds primarily because of its main protagonist, in this case, Daniel Pierce played by Eric McCormack who like Rachael Leigh Cook is playing against type here. His Daniel in no way conjures up images of his previous most famous persona as Will in the massive hit series, Will and Grace. Here, McCormack straddles the fine line effortless between making Daniel an overblown raving maniac with exaggerated hand gestures and the more introverted and insecure man he is behind his public persona. Dr. Pierce might be a genius but he’s also wholly out of touch with society because of his malady that has led him down a path of seclusion with a biting lack of outward empathy. McCormack does occasionally allow himself to over-animate his character yet it never goes so far as to appear like he is attempting to emulate a William Shatner-level of ego and crafts Pierce as someone who easily wins audience sympathies when they realize how tormented he truly is regardless of his intellect.

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As his partner Rachael Leigh Cook has a much harder time because it takes the show a while to figure out what it wants to do with her character. Nevertheless, like McCormack, Cook is an actress just about no one would initially think about when casting for a hard-nosed FBI agent which is a breath of fresh air albeit with caveats. This is because Cook is an actress that is diametrically opposite to the typical macho FBI female detective with moxie that has populated pop culture. In fact many people will just not even buy a female detective in that capacity but that is an issue for an editorial not a TV series review. Cook is slim, petite and suffers from what I call Michael J. Fox syndrome by having a perpetually “baby” face that makes her appear much younger than she actually is. If you don’t have a High-Definition TV you might even mistake her from her days as the waifish heroine from She’s All That or the rocking title character from Josie and the Pussycats. In short, visually Cook goes completely against the grain and I am ecstatic that she does as it nicely relates to the show’s entire raison d’etre summed up by the title – perception.

By casting Cook and McCormack against type the show is slyly hinting at deeper meaning and poses serious questions to viewers to confront their prejudices and opinions as to why they “buy” or “dismiss” the two lead actors in their respective roles. McCormack has a much easier time as he’s following a set paradigm of eccentric intellectuals put forth in other shows yet watching Cook jump off a two-story building or essentially be the “muscle” in this odd couple pairing really sticks out with big flashing neon signs that can’t help but call attention to itself.

However, while Cook and McCormack develop an easy camaraderie that actually becomes more dynamic and believable as the series progresses it still is open to numerous issues that mainly stem from the episodic format that completely favors Pierce’s observations over everyone else making him seem almost God-like in his mental capacity. Shows that feature brainy protagonists oftentimes fall into the same narrative trap of making the lead always right yet they seem even more capable merely because the writers conspire to dumb down the supporting characters almost to the point of absurdity.

In a way Perception is merely following a paradigm that is akin to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes with Daniel Pierce cast as the famous sleuth and Kate Moretti his loyal sidekick, Watson. It quickly becomes apparent that nearly all the strenuous mental work falls upon Daniel to solve while Kate is more or less pigeonholed into the role of the assistant by doing all the grunt/physical work. While this relationship is functional for the entire ten episode first season it eventually starts to come unglued not because of the obvious romantic overtones but rather it flies in the face of the fact that Kate is supposedly one of his best past pupils.

Whatever insight she gives is rarely of any intrinsic value to Daniel or worse, turns out to be flat out erroneous. As much as it behooves the show to allow its lead to always be right it is frankly not a winning strategy to show Kate is almost always on the wrong path especially considering her vocation. Nevertheless, it is a testament to both actor Eric McCormack and Rachel Leigh Cook that the pairing achieves any sort of organic chemistry.

If Cook’s character suffers from being overshadowed by McCormack then it has to be said that the other members of the supporting cast fair even worse, their roles completely one-dimensional and sadly ineffective. There is only so much regurgitation one can take watching Arjay Smith as Pierce’s assistant Max Lewicki be totally ignored or endure verbal abuse every single episode. Poor Star Trek: The Next Generation veteran LeVar Burton’s cameos are rarely engaging and his character ends up being the butt of jokes rather than being a competent Dean. As mentioned, having a supporting cast that all seem irrelevant or incompetent actually is detrimental to the show as it does not allow Pierce much leeway in interacting with those at least close to his mental capacity forcing him to completely dominate scenes with wild abandon.

By its very nature of its main plot Perception is an odd kind of procedural drama unlike CSI/Law and Order or NCIS merely because each episode concentrates on an incredibly obscure medical malady that only a tiny fraction of the audience would be aware of. In other words, there’s literally no chance that a casual viewer will be able to unravel the mystery which is both a boon and a curse. On one hand these rare mental conditions are actually educational, shining light on psychological issues that most will find gripping and often eerie. Nevertheless, by focusing on such problems and removing any chance of active audience participation in solving the crimes the show runs the risk of appearing fantastical and almost verging on science fiction. As an example an early episode reveals a relatively unknown medical condition where some people are able to intrinsically “tell” when someone is lying and end up unconsciously giggling or laughing when they detect an untruth. It’s a fascinating fact no doubt but it is so fantastical an ailment that it might alienate those who just can’t accept that it is true.

The first season of Perception certainly has its faults and initially suffers from some apparent comparisons to other shows featuring similar setups yet it manages to thrive due to its two memorable leads in McCormack and Cook. The final two episodes of the season easily standout because they fall decidedly onto the darker side of the narrative finally exposing Pierce’s condition in a realistic and emotionally charged light. That is not to say that the show should somehow change direction completely from the relatively lighthearted atmosphere constructed in the first season but that it should at least not attempt to downplay Pierce’s malady as anything but something that needs to be taken seriously. If the show can also add a strong supporting cast while building on the show’s momentum in the latter half of season one then there is much to look forward to.

**1/2 out of ****

2012, 450 Minutes, TNT/ABC Studios
Directed by Greg Beeman, Kenneth Biller, Christopher Misiano, Deran Sarafian
Written by Kenneth Biller, Mike Sussman, Amanda Green, Jason Ning, Stephen Tolkin
Produced by Eric McCormack, Mark H. Ovitz
Co-Producer Jason Ning
Co-Executive Producer Mike Sussman, Amanda Green, Kenneth Biller, Stephen Tolkin

Eric McCormack: Daniel Pierce
Rachael Leigh Cook: Kate Moretti
Kelly Rowan: Natalie Vincent
Arjay Smith: Max Lewicki
Jonathan Scarfe: Roger Probert
LeVar Burton: Paul Haley
Jamie Bamber: Michael Hathaway

© 2013 The Galactic Pillow

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