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. 

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