A Beautiful Crime: TNT’s ‘Perception’

Ah, summer. It’s a time for lounging, tanning, and watching overblown popcorn movies. It’s also, in recent years, become a legitimate time to launch a television series — and not just the trashy stuff. May I remind you that Breaking Bad premieres in less than a week?

Perception kicks off with the question “What is real?”, delivered by professor Daniel Pierce to his college psychology class. Real enough. Then, a former student-cum-FBI agent swings by to ask for help solving a murder, and things quickly go the way they can only go on television — in a word, unreal. It’s particularly ironic that a show about the blurred line between reality and fantasy, the “real” stuff feels as fictional as the hallucinations and delusions that are meant to throw us off, because these kinds of mainstream cop shows pretty much always take massive shortcuts to tell a murder tale with multiple red herrings in 44 minutes or less. The detective work here is maybe a notch below Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on the TV cop plausibility meter, maybe a cut above Scooby-Doo. But that doesn’t really matter. Perception is more interested in psychology than in homicide, and in its own hammy way, it’s pretty compelling.

Perception stars Eric McCormack (the “Will” half of Will & Grace) as a psych professor at a prestigious university in Chicago. He also happens to be schizophrenic — in a functional, friendly TV star kind of way. He leads a quiet life, interacting only with his assistant (Arjay Smith), former flame-cum-confidante Natalie (Kelly Rowan), and occasionally his students — not all of whom are necessarily real. As such, he’s a got a whiff of that House-style curmudgeon vibe, paired with Monk-esque eccentricities. Daniel spends his free time solving puzzles to keep his mind busy and stave off any dangerous delusions. But the arrival of Kate Moretti introduces a chaotic element to his outwardly orderly world — she wants his beautiful mind to assist in a murder investigation. They soon discover that solving crimes is the ultimate brain teaser, and without much fanfare, Pierce is soon an honorary FBI agent, assisting on the toughest, highest-profile cases without much resistance from anyone wondering if it’s really a good idea to let a man with an acute mental condition interview witnesses and the like. (Whatever, it’s TV.)

To the show’s credit, you stop expecting Jack from Will & Grace to pop up with sassy quips about five minutes into the pilot. Perception‘s depiction of schizophrenia isn’t particularly deep or moving; like the police work, it’s got that glossy TV finish all over it, hitting the beats in broad strokes so the folks who got up to fix a snack won’t get lost when they return to the sofa. The Wire this is not. But Eric McCormack’s performance is serviceable and, often enough, engaging, and we can hope that once the series finds its footing, the writers may dive into his psyche a little deeper.

Meanwhile, Kate Moretti is played by Rachael “all I had to do was take off my glasses to become the school hottie” Leigh Cook of She’s All That. Where has she been? (Waiting it out until she was old enough to take a TV cop role, I guess.) We are mercifully spared Sixpence None The Richer’s “Kiss Me” playing over her entrance, as much as I would have enjoyed that. Kate is about as believable an FBI agent as Willow Smith would be, which is to say, she’s as believable as most other hot young FBI agents on TV, who seem to have turned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation only after being cut from America’s Next Top Model. Make no mistake — in watching Perception, you’ll be suspending your disbelief as far as it can possibly stretch. (But whatever. It’s TV.)

The pilot is perfectly watchable, notable for a couple nice twists and turns, though things don’t really get cooking until Episode Two. One of the series’ calling cards? Daniel hallucinates people who won’t stop pestering him until he solves the crime. They represent his subconscious — clues he’s seen but hasn’t put together yet — which is alternately fascinating and annoying, since it can’t help but feel like a deus ex machina when some imagined character swoops in to point out what Daniel’s missed.

A better device is when Daniel uses rare psychological disorders to his advantage, like a patient who registers changes in facial musculature when someone is lying and laughs as a result, cluing us into a false confession. (It involves a dig at George W. Bush.) Yes, this is an absurd way to solve a crime, and not remotely applicable in the real world. But it’s a nifty gimmick in that fun, old-fashioned “whodunit?” way, and a nice opportunity to see a host of familiar characters swing by to phone it in for a day — Neal McDonough, Roger Bart, and Armin Shimmerman, to name a few. It’s CSI meets A Beautiful Mind, but in the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. (It’s not like their mysteries were always believable, either.)

As for those mysteries, Perception takes its cues from the big screen — if Law & Order is ripped from the headlines, Perception is ripped from the multiplex. Following the pilot, which involves shady dealings at a pharmaceutical company, Perception pushes the grand cinematic ambitions further with a serial killer in the second episode and a terrorist in the third; you can pretty easily trace their origins back to much tighter stories like Zodiac and Michael Clayton, but really, the more over-the-top Perception gets, the more fun it is. The best episode is the second, “86’ed,” in which Daniel and Kate have to work with the only surviving victim of a serial killer who struck in the summer of ’86, brain damaged so she wakes up every day still believing she’s 17 again. It’s totally ridiculous with all kinds of plot holes (does she really not notice that her body has aged 26 years or attempt to leave the house?), but there’s something novel about the way each episode manages to cram so many rare psychological disorders into the formula of a cop show and allows us to get more wrapped up in those human stories than we are in the actual investigation.

For now, the characters remain typically thin and predictable for this sort of procedural, and maybe we wish Perception was a little bit more, um, perceptive about what it’s like to live with these disorders, in a non-crime-solving capacity. You can imagine a much smarter, savvier version of this story done really, really well, with more craft and care in the writing. Perception is broadly written, making sure to spell everything out in bold for the audience with on-the-nose dialogue. There’s not a lot of nuance or subtlety. There’s also a distinctly preachy vibe, since the villains (and victims) tend to be money-grubbing corporate types, or, in episode four, a Christian cult — there’s much to-do about rallying against “the man.” (But since Pierce is one of those subversive liberal professor types, it kind of follows.)

It sounds strange to call a show about psychology “mindless” entertainment, but there it is. Perception won me over in spite of itself. You just can’t take it very seriously, and once you stop trying, the clumsy storytelling and cliche character types become part of the appeal — even when they’re only taking place in Daniel’s mind. (Joan of Arc does appear to help solve a crime in Episode Four, after all. Cheese-tastic.) The ostensibly “real” stuff isn’t any more realistic than Daniel’s schizophrenic hallucinations, but it’s a throwback to an older era of TV, one that wasn’t held up to the scrutiny of premium cable standards in all its self-seriousness. A must-watch? No. But the first four episodes went down painlessly.

It’s faux-high-minded entertainment for people who really don’t want to have to think. And given that, I don’t think Perception will have any trouble finding an audience this summer.

(Perception premieres tonight on TNT.)

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