'Perception' premiere review: Eric McCormack returned to TV as a schizo eccentric trying to warm your heart. Did he?

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Image Credit: Jan Thijs/TNT

Perception, which premiered Monday night, is officially TNT’s umpteenth series about an eccentric crime-solver surrounded by skeptical colleagues who are invariably impressed with the weekly triumphs we can see coming a mile away. Eric McCormack is the star, his hair more tousled than it was on Will & Grace, but his fast-talking charm was intact.

McCormack stars as Dr. Daniel Pierce, a famous neuroscientist and college professor (“He literally wrote the book on forensic neuro-psychiatry,” is a sample line of timber-wooden dialogue) who’s also a delusional schizophrenic. Rather than rendering him damaged goods, his condition makes him a dandy crime-fighter, at least in the eyes of his former student, an FBI agent named Kate Moretti, played by Rachel Leigh Cook with a touching, and under the circumstances almost heroic, earnestness.

In the pilot, Dr. Pierce was enlisted by agent Moretti to help solve a murder, thus beginning the series partnership. Because Pierce is a fragile flower prone to “episodes” of hallucination and paranoid withdrawal — and who wouldn’t want that sort of genius at a crime scene? — he must be calmed by his various comforts, which include listening to classical music on cassette tapes (high-toned fuddy-duddy = genius in TV shorthand), doing crossword puzzles really fast (ditto), can discern anagrams just by staring at words really hard (tell it to Dick Cavett), and being taken care of by a teaching assistant (Arjay Smith) who really operates more like an over-qualified nanny. The show is most obviously a variation on Monk, with a little Numb3ers thrown in.

You could say that Perception exploits those with mental and emotional disorder. You could say that because Pierce did some exploiting himself in the premiere. Moretti, unsure whether a suspect is telling the truth, brought her problem to Pierce, who in turn brought her to a man with aphasia, a disorder that makes it difficult for the sufferer to comprehend language. For Pierce, however, the man is “a human lie detector.” A tape of the suspect is played for the man; he laughs with scornful ridicule: Bingo — the guy on the tape is a liar! Bye, bye, aphasia-man, thanks for the unpaid, unsolicited help!

Because Perception was such a tedious show, its dialogue scrubbed of any interesting turns of phrase, its twists of plot alternately unfathomable or predictable, I had time to think about the way McCormack’s character was built from the outside-in: Like so many lead characters on procedural mystery shows, McCormack’s Pierce always looks and dresses the same way from scene to scene, episode to episode. In Pierce’s case, he maintains carefully cultivated stubble, and knots a scarf around his neck as he hunches into a sport coat. His shirt is invariably unbuttoned sufficiently to expose a natty t-shirt. It’s a TV-hero uniform, just as Hugh Laurie’s House always had carefully cultivated stubble, a shirt is invariably unbuttoned sufficiently to expose a natty t-shirt and — oh, dear, I may have suggested the method behind the Perception producers’ non-madness.

Now I come to what I guess, at least until the show airs on the West Coast, is a SPOILER ALERT.

Kelly Rowan plays Natalie Vincent, and is referred to in TNT’s press materials as Dr. Pierce’s best friend. She pops up just when he needs her, offering advice and chaste comfort. It’s good to see Rowan back on TV in a regular role since her time on The O.C., but you can’t really call the role “regular”: Unless I’m missing something, the pilot implied that Nancy is another figment of Daniel’s tortured imagination. Thus Rowan’s natural ethereal quality is both put to good use and squandered, since it’s unlikely that if she’s a flittering ghost in Daniel’s brain-machine, she won’t really be doing much substantial — or transubstantial — interacting with anyone else on the show. Too bad.

What did you think of the Perception premiere?

Twitter: @kentucker

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