by Deborah Harter Williams
TNT’s new series Perception (Monday night, 10 p.m.) stars Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) as Dr. Daniel Pierce, a likable neuroscience professor with paranoid schizophrenia who helps FBI agent Kate Moretti (a former student played by Rachael Leigh Cook) solve crimes. Sure he has hallucinations, but they bring messages from his subconscious to help him spot clues that a normal mind would miss. Perception was behind only Dallas and its 6.9 million viewers among summer debuts and tied the Rizzoli & Isles‘ season opener.
It would have been easy to fall back on the hallucinations as a lazy trick but creators Kenneth Biller and Mike Sussman are true to their sci-fi roots (Smallville, Star Trek Voyager and Legend of the Seeker) injecting real science into the proceedings. The show pursues the audience-getting tactic of a procedural with a twist, the wild card consulting character ala The Mentalist, Monk and Psych. Perception is more akin to Numb3rs, in that it features a professor and plenty college-level science. Recent episodes dealt with face blindness, Korsakoff syndrome, anterograde amnesia and even had a dying patient communicate by alternately thinking of singing Happy Birthday or of hitting a baseball. My favorite to date was “86’d” which also worked in a hint of time travel.
Eager to play a role far different than his well-known Will Truman, McCormack wanted to challenge himself and his audience to see him as someone else. To prepare, his homework included meeting with a neuroscience professor from UCLA, whose specialty is schizophrenia. He also met with Dr. Elyn Saks author of The Center Cannot Hold about her student experience of essentially losing her mind. Another academic clued him into the politics of college faculty.
McCormack hopes his portrayal of a self-aware schizophrenic might change attitudes about the mentally ill much as he changed people’s attitudes about gay men in Will and Grace. The term schizophrenia was popularly misinterpreted, for many years, as meaning “split personality.” The actual term more accurately means a brain that is split from other parts of itself. Schizophrenia is experienced by about 1.1 percent of adults in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. People with paranoid schizophrenia believe that someone is “out to get them.” Some people with the condition may also experience hallucinations like McCormack’s character.
Rachael Leigh Cook (She’s All That) has the challenge of a much subtler portrayal. Her Kate Moretti is a young FBI agent, recently reassigned from Washington, D.C., with a cop father and a soon-to-be-ex-husband. She has to be tough without being defensive and self-confident enough to bring in the professor to help, even though her colleagues discount “the crazy guy” and, by connection, her.
Cops named Kate have a good track record and Cook also memorably starred in the sequel to the famous PSA “This is your brain on crack” so she’s had some success with brain work. Petite and young, she doesn’t have the usual swagger of her crime-fighting sisters, which gives another dimension to the role.
The supporting cast is strong, and the characters they play promise complexity and hint at secrets to be revealed later. LeVar Burton (Roots, Star Trek) has a recurring role as a university Dean and British actor Jamie Bamber (Lee Adama on Battlestar Gallactica) is a new professor who annoys Pierce with his pop-psych successes and interest in Kate.
Arjay Smith (The Journey of Allen Strange, 24) is Max Lewicki, Dr. Pierce’s teaching assistant. His job is to help Pierce differentiate between real people and hallucinations while trying to maintain the balance between routine and challenging puzzles that keep Dr. Pierce functional. A perennial student, he bristles at being treated as a servant.
Kelly Rowan (The O.C.) plays Natalie Vincent, Pierce’s imaginary friend and advisor. Rowan plays this real/not real/might-have-once-been-real person, who knows Daniel better than anyone, with a warmth and confidence. She seems most secure in her role as the cast begins to gel.
Personally I love the college professor as hero and the classroom stuff is strongly written. Professor Pierce challenges his students with such questions as “What is reality?” “Which comes first yesterday or tomorrow?” It’s fun to have a back row seat for his lectures and a front row seat for adventures in neuroscience.
Learn more and watch full episodes on the show’s website.