Eric McCormack is likable again in TNT’s “Perception,” and that may be more half the battle for this new mystery series. After some misfires in which his roles accentuated the grating aspects of his Will Truman character in “Will & Grace,” Mr. McCormack goes for a more sympathetic mix of waspish and wounded in “Perception.” He plays Daniel Pierce, a brilliant neuroscientist with — cosmic coincidence alert — a full-blown case of schizophrenia.
Eric McCormack, right, in a scene from “Perception.”
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Of course this is TV-fantasy schizophrenia, in which mental illness is both a personal curse and a crime-solving blessing. Colorful characters that only Pierce can see pop up to help him solve murder cases he consults on for his spunky F.B.I. buddy, played by Rachael Leigh Cook. These apparitions badger Pierce with what appear to be non sequiturs and useless information until the last 10 minutes of an episode, when the light bulb goes on, and the murderer is identified.
“Perception,” which will run on Monday nights along with the final episodes of “The Closer,” has aspirations, reflected in its title, to explore questions of illusion and reality. “How can we know what’s real and what isn’t?” Pierce asks his students (at an unnamed Chicago university) as the show opens. But across the four early episodes provided for review, Pierce’s hallucinations are already beginning to feel like stunts covering up for a lack of ideas. In the pilot he imagines he’s talking to people actually connected to the case, but in subsequent weeks he’s guided to his deductions by a World War I code breaker and, I’m sorry to say, by Joan of Arc.
Having Joan of Arc show up in contemporary Chicago to assist in a case involving seemingly irrational faith is definitely not real, and it’s the sort of thing that could kill a show pretty quickly if allowed to multiply. This forced whimsicality is accompanied by an insistent do-gooder impulse — early cases involve big pharmaceutical companies, genetically engineered crops and the warehousing of mental patients — that feels as fake here as it does in a much better show like “The Good Wife.”
On other counts “Perception” is a palatable, if more than usually implausible, cable mystery that clips elements from a number of other Sherlock Holmesian tortured-genius shows — call it a cozy-crazy — and wraps them in totally familiar rhythms and plots. It’s most heavily indebted to “Monk,” still the blueprint for this sort of show, with Ms. Cook’s Agent Kate Moretti filling the roles of both Sharona the caretaker and Stottlemeyer the friendly cop. (There’s an actual caretaker character, a teaching assistant played by Arjay Smith, but so far he doesn’t do much besides look worried when he catches Pierce talking to people who aren’t there.)
Kelly Rowan, a welcome sight in her first regular series role since “The O.C.,” plays Pierce’s best friend; it’s a small spoiler to say that her character is reminiscent of the one played by Jennifer Ehle this past season on “A Gifted Man,” but anyone familiar with the genre will guess the truth within minutes of her first appearance. There are also high-quality guest stars, including the wonderful duo of Pamela Reed and Sheryl Lee as a mother and daughter (in a memory-loss story that takes the cold-case investigation to new depths of improbability) and, in an unscreened episode, Jamie Bamber as a professor.
Mr. McCormack puts Pierce’s vulnerability and fear in the foreground, and avoids the huckster’s smirk that can sometimes mar his performances; he’s winning, and he has an easy rapport with Ms. Cook. For more critical viewers, though, that may not outweigh the show’s forced eccentricities, or the way in which ideas and motifs from “Monk,” “House,” “The Mentalist,” “Numbers” and other series clank around in plain sight.
TNT, Monday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.
Produced by ABC Studios. Created by Ken Biller and Mike Sussman; Mr. Biller and Alan Poul (pilot only), executive producers; Mr. Sussman, co-executive producer; Eric McCormack, producer.
WITH: Eric McCormack (Dr. Daniel Pierce), Rachael Leigh Cook (Agent Kate Moretti), Arjay Smith (Max Lewicki), Kelly Rowan (Natalie Vincent) and LeVar Burton (Paul Haley).
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