Thursday, August 02, 2012

TV Series Review: Perception

I love Oliver Sacks’ popular psychology books, which showcase oddities like a man who tries to put on his wife’s head like a hat or a man who falls out of bed while trying to hurl away his own leg, thinking it is a severed limb.

You know who else loves Oliver Sacks? My guess is, everyone working on Perception, a TV series featuring a psychology professor/detective whose cases revolve around prosopagnosiacs (people who can’t recognize faces), aphasiacs (people who have lost the ability to understand human speech), and anterograde amnesiacs (people who can’t form memories).

I should add the caveat that these are all worst-case scenarios; some aphasiacs just have trouble thinking of words, some prosopagnosiacs just have trouble with strangers’ faces.  But Perception has no interest in those people. It is only interested in the guy who can’t recognize his own wife and the forty-something woman whose brain is trapped in a single day in 1986.

The psychologist is Dr. Daniel Pierce, played with jittery intensity by a slightly disheveled Eric McCormack.  Pierce is not just an expert on psychological anomalies; like the president of the hair club for men, he’s also a member; a schizophrenic prone to hallucinations. He even employs a live-in teaching assistant whose main responsibility is to tell Daniel whether the person he’s talking to is really there.

When he’s not teaching his students about the vagaries of the mind, Pierce works as a consultant for the FBI alongside special agent Kate Moretti, played by Rachel Leigh Cook. He’s a little sweet on her, and she’s a little sweet on him, but he doesn’t consider himself good dating material and lives in fear that she will witness one of his “episodes.”

I generally think of schizophrenics as tattered people talking to themselves on the street, but like everything else I’ve googled in Perception, the functional schizophrenic turns out to be slightly less far-fetched than one might expect; a schizophrenic law professor teaches at USC.

Still, I suspect most schizophrenics don’t have symptoms as helpful as the professor’s. During each case, Pierce is visited by at least one hallucinatory person who will plead with him, threaten him, cajole him, or just try to run him over with a bicycle. Conveniently, these hallucinations act as clues to each mystery; offering egress to Pierce’s subconscious observations. 

While this is a bit ludicrous, it works well as a mystery-series device, offering a new way to dole out Agatha-Christie style clues. Much of the mystery is figuring out what these hallucinations represent, and in classic whodunit style, the viewer always feels on the verge of solving the mystery before the detective, but never does.

McCormack is quite good as Pierce; one moment clever and thoughtful, the next ranting about the radiation in a security scanner. The rest of the cast is also quite likable, with Cook maintaining her professionalism while staying alert for a romantic signal from Pierce and Kelly Rowan yoga-teacher-soothing as Daniel’s favorite imaginary friend.

The Oliver Sacks influence suffuses the series. At one point we see an aphasiac man laughing as he watches video of George W. Bush’s Saddam Hussein/WMD speech. Daniel explains that as the man has lost the ability to understand speech, he has become a human lie detector who finds lies very funny, an allusion to a Sacks report of a roomful of aphasiacs laughing at a speech by Ronald Reagan. The scene upset some Republicans, even though the series ends with the same guy laughing as Bill Clinton denies having had sex with Monica Lewinski.

As the latest of many series about brilliant but unstable detectives, Perception can be quite entertaining, using psychologically-damaged characters to craft elaborate, sometimes convoluted mysteries. But as a show about mental illness, the series is decidedly shallow. What makes Sacks’s writing so intriguing is his use of aberrant psychology to ponder on the nature of reality and explore whether personality is inherent or is simply the result of activity in the brain that, if diverted, can change us into someone entirely new. But Perception trots out its brain-damaged guests like a series of parlor tricks; every time McCormick introduces us to a new oddity one expects him to shout out voila! and take a bow.

To be fair, Sacks himself has been accused of putting on “a high-brow freak show.” Unfortunately, that seems to be what Perceptions’ writers like most about him. 

TV Series Review: Bunheads

Watching Bunheads is a lot like mistaking someone on the street for a friend.  You catch site of a woman down the block and say, is that Susan? You get closer. It looks a lot like her, but isn’t the hair a little shorter? Would she wear that hat? You get closer still. No, that’s not her. Pretty definitely not. Then you yell out “SUSAN!” to see if she turns around.

From a distance, Bunheads is The Gilmore Girls. Both shows were created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, so they unsurprisingly have her trademark sharp, witty dialogue and quirky, engaging characters.  But it goes beyond that. Sutton Foster, who plays a Vegas showgirl transplanted to a small Californian town called Paradise, bears a notable resemblance to Lauren Graham, who played Lorelei Gilmore. They even have similar voices. Kelly Bishop, who played Emily Gilmore, shows up as Foster’s mother-in-law, while the spunky daughter of the old show has been supplanted by a quartet of teen dancers in the new one (one sweet and unsure, one prickly and arrogant, two generic).

At times, the series seems to just be Gilmore Girls with some dance numbers thrown in.

Bunheads began oddly, with Michelle, a dispirited Vegas showgirl, drunkenly agreeing to marry a gift-giving admirer she never particularly liked. He takes her to Paradise, where it turns out he lives with his mom and her gaudy tchotchkes. While we are assured over and over that this guy is a really, really nice guy, one can’t help thinking that a nebishy man becoming obsessed with a showgirl and luring her to the oddly decorated home he shares with his mother would make a good foundation for a horror movie.

If you don’t like the premiere episode’s premise don’t worry about it, because it has pretty much nothing to do with the series itself, which turns out to be about the relationship between Michelle, her ballet-teaching mother-in-law Fanny, and four of Fanny’s students.

Like Gilmore Girls, Bunheads is mainly about relationships. A big difference between the two shows is that while Lorelei was comfortably ensconced in a world of friends and family, Michelle finds herself dropped unceremoniously into a town of strangers; one of the first townspeople she meets is her new husband’s hostile, fiercely disappointed ex. While Lorelei always seemed to have a strong idea of where she was going in life, Michelle is lost and scattered, and while the series is developing its plot points slowly, it appears to be a show about someone finding her place in the world. It’s a journey that is looking to be filled with missteps and confusion.

While you can easily discover differences between Sherman-Palladino’s two pretty-lady-in-a-small-town series, these are less obvious than the similarities. And that’s fine with me. After contract negotiations fell through, Sherman-Palladino left The Gilmore Girls, leaving the final season in other hands. If Bunheads is like your friend’s doppelganger, the last season of Gilmore Girls was like the mother at the beginning of Invasion of the Body Snatchers whose son insists that, even though she looks like his mom and has her memories, she isn’t his mother. That last season was disturbing, with a Lorelei Gilmore who had the look but had lost the spirit of the woman I had loved so much that I could never decide if I wanted her more as my girlfriend or my mom.

For me, Bunheads is the sorely missed Gilmore Girls come back to life. If I may indulge myself in one more comparison, it is like losing a loved one, and, years later, having her knock on your door and say, it was all a mistake, I never really died. And even though her hair is different, she’s wearing glasses and she walks with a limp, you’d still recognize her anywhere.

Welcome back, Gilmore Girls, welcome back.