One of the most addictive elements of crime dramas is playing detective along with the show, hour after hour, such as when a “Law & Order” marathon suddenly devours the entire afternoon. So, just a warning to procedural junkies looking to tune into TNT’s new series “Perception” on Monday night: There’s no way you’re solving any of these cases.
That’s because the show is told from the perspective of Dr. Daniel Pierce (Eric McCormack of “Will & Grace” fame), the most unreliable narrator in the history of unreliable narrators. Pierce is one of those brilliant-yet-eccentric TV heroes, a neuroscience professor and FBI consultant who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, causing him to hallucinate and engage in lengthy conversations with imaginary people.
While this adds a twist to what would otherwise be an average crime drama, it also means that the audience never knows whether a scene is actually happening. Essentially, the writers can take the plot in any direction they want without much regard for reality. For some viewers, this will be a neat trick. For others, it will be maddening.
Pierce, a beloved professor at a prestigious university in Chicago, gets an immediate employment upgrade when his former-student-turned-FBI agent, Kate Moretti (former teen rom-com queen Rachael Leigh Cook), shows up in the premiere to recruit him. This is apparently because of Pierce’s well-known ability to read people and instantly diagnose psychological disorders. Oh, and Kate’s had a crush on him for years.
Pierce, of course, seems to be oblivious to Kate’s awkward flirtation, so any thought of romance is placed on the back burner as he teams up with the FBI to crack some bizarre investigations.
McCormack throws himself into the offbeat character, who will slap on a pair of headphones and start conducting an invisible orchestra when situations get too stressful. But no one at the FBI minds, as Pierce uses his skills to spot patterns, unscramble anagrams in phrases of threatening letters, and experience quite a few helpful hallucinations.
These aren’t any ordinary hallucinations — they’re people who appear in his mind to point out clues in various cases. If that sounds like a copout, Pierce’s friend reminds him that, “Sometimes these hallucinations tell you things that your conscious mind can’t make sense of.”
This makes it difficult to keep up with the quickly paced plot: After all, viewers cannot be sure what’s going on, who said what or who’s there. Still, in between the standard back-and-forth of the FBI investigations (the first episode focuses on the murder of a pharmaceutical company executive), we learn some genuinely fascinating lessons about human psychology.
In one scene, Pierce tries to find out if a potential witness is lying, so he shows a tape of her police statement to a man with aphasia (which Pierce describes as the loss of ability to comprehend spoken language). The man starts laughing hysterically. Pierce tells us that aphasiacs are especially sensitive to subtle inflections in language, and when they catch tiny vocal nuances people use when they’re lying, it’s extremely funny to them, turning them into human lie detectors. To prove the point, the man is seen watching tapes of George W. Bush’s “16 words” in the 2003 State of the Union address and Bill Clinton’s insistence that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Both recordings cause the patient to erupt into laughter.
Similar lessons, along with Pierce’s “creative” problem-solving abilities, keep the show moving at a nice and swift pace. The little time spent on getting to know more about the characters’ personal lives winds up dragging down the action in future episodes, as there’s the usual wacky cast of side characters: Natalie (Kelly Rowan), Pierce’s mysterious friend, who doubles as a quasi-therapist for him; and Lewicki (Arjay Smith), his teaching assistant, who supplies him with a steady stream of crossword puzzles. LeVar Burton drops by to play the dean of the university, reminding Pierce that just because he’s a genius, he needs to tone down his eccentricities before he gets the school sued.
For those who don’t mind getting sent off in lots of false directions, or aren’t going to even try to keep up, “Perception” offers the chance to just go along for an enjoyable ride.
(one hour) debuts Monday at 10 p.m. on TNT.