Like just about everything else, television is a copy-cat business. When someone or something works, that person, approach, or formula gets repeated and regurgitated until audiences eventually grow tired of it. Major genres like the cop drama or the workplace comedy will always remain popular and prevalent, but the trendy alterations to those broad genres will come and go.
In recent years, one of the more common approaches to procedural storytelling has been to build the crime/medical emergency/insert your favorite occupational task here-solving around one singular, kooky individual. This isn’t a brand-new development by any means, but shows like House, Monk, Psych and The Mentalist all helped usher in this contemporary era of weirdo problem-solvers and a number of other shows have tried and failed in their attempts to riff on that formula. With House and Monk off the air and Psych and The Mentalist aging, I thought maybe we'd reached and then passed the saturation point for shows about People Who Can Solve Everything But Themselves!
Apparently, TNT disagrees with me. Lost amid the flashy press-push for Dallas and the incessant, bro-y ads for Franklin & Bash during the NBA Playoffs is the cable channel’s newest procedural, Perception. I guess TNT assumed that almost no promotion was necessary for a show debuting behind the Final, No Seriously These Are The Final Episodes of The Closer. The network is probably correct in that assumption.
Perception—doesn’t that title just scream "basic cable mediocrity"?—stars Eric McCormack as Daniel Pierce, a university professor and neuroscientist who successfully assists the FBI with some very difficult cases. Unfortunately, Daniel can’t always help the FBI or himself because he struggles with his own neurological disorders, namely schizophrenia. GASP. Daniel has a “teaching assistant” nearby at all times to keep him tethered to reality (as much as he can be) and spends much of his time listening to old tapes of classical music, doing crosswords in record time (misunderstood genius, y’all!) and talking to his best friend Natalie, played by the always-lovely Kelly Rowan.
At the beginning of the pilot, Daniel has been away from his FBI consulting for a while but is pulled back into it when his former student/now agent Kate (Rachael Leigh Cook) returns to the fold. Literally four minutes into the episode, Kate has convinced Daniel to re-join her in crime solving, and by minute five, he is already interviewing a possible suspect in an interrogation room. If you were looking for something a little deeper than “He’s Crazy, and She’s a Cop,” you were likely disappointed with the opening act.
However, Perception’s biggest issues have little to do with its desire to quickly move beyond the obvious premise set-up stuff that plagues pilots. In fact, the script’s economical handling of Daniel’s issues and his relationship with Kate is actually a bit refreshing. This way, there's no need to spend a half-dozen episodes with the two of them learning to work together, him being wacky and her looking exasperated. That’s definitely going to happen, probably almost every week, but at least there is history here that doesn’t—or at least shouldn’t—result in too much overwrought and unnecessary “tension.”
No, Perception struggles because its premise is an all-you-can-eat buffet of generic tropes and quirks from so many shows like that came before. Do you like it when The Mentalist Patrick Jane does zany things out in the field while working a case? Maybe you enjoyed it when House came up with unheard of diagnostic ideas? Perhaps you appreciated Monk’s dysfunctional social skills? If that's the case, Perception features all of those elements, reheated and re-served, even though they’ve been sitting under the heat lamps for six years.
So much about Perception is just so calculated. Despite his serious issues, the pilot is full of mild, toothless humor. McCormack is even styled in the perfect way: perfectly un-perfect hair, scarf, sweaters with buttons undone and a whole lot of I Can’t Take Care of Myself stubble.
The premise is obviously related to those of the aforementioned shows (among others), but this pilot takes it step further by somehow being both a police procedural and a medical mystery procedural. Daniel uses his heightened awareness to notice things and then backs them up, at times, with plot-device patients that serve as a sort of “human lie detector.” These short scenes are moderately compelling—if entirely too convenient—but when they simply lead to another small piece of a case full of misdirects, the impact is muted.
The show’s most novel element is the seriousness of Daniel’s ailments and the second half of the episode is driven by him seeing someone who is not actually there but is part of “something” pertinent to the case that he noticed. On the first go-round, this device is pretty compelling. McCormack does fine work playing Daniel’s combination of confusion, intelligence, and excitement and the fact that the show acknowledges that the schizophrenic vision is a device to help Daniel work through things makes it easier to play along and follow the clues. Nevertheless, I'm worried that after a handful of episodes, watching Daniel talk to human representations of tiny clues is going to get very tiring and become an obvious crutch for the writers.
The pilot’s final moments reveal that Daniel’s schizophrenia is actually worse than we were initially led to believe, as Rowan’s Natalie appears to be just another figment of his imagination. Rowan and McCormack have easy patter and fun chemistry but again, I fear that the relationship will become either another plot device or a weekly way for Daniel to didactically rant about how misunderstood he is. There is a fine line to walk with these elements and the pilot didn’t necessarily convince me that Perception can toe the right side of that line in a longer series.
If Perception is actually interested in exploring what is a very serious illness in schizophrenia, as the final reveal with Natalie almost suggests, this could be a solid and compelling character-based procedural. McCormack brings some nice texture to the lead role and never overdoes any of the showy “weirdo” or “I’ve solved it!” scenes; there’s an earnestness to him that separates this performance from the more sardonic or detached work that we’ve seen from Hugh Laurie or Simon Baker in similar roles.
Yet, I can’t help but think McCormack isn’t really going to get that much chance to shine, just like I don’t imagine Daniel or any of the other characters will come before the case of the week. At this point, TNT knows exactly to develop a show into a procedural hit and if Perception is going to be the latest in that line, neither McCormack nor his character’s complexities are likely to be given their just-due. Perception will likely always be watchable summer entertainment but there is room for it to be much more.
What did you think of Perception's debut?