Summer is the time for cable channels to move to the fore with original programming as the broadcast networks fill their schedules with reruns and cheap “reality” shows. And it has become a truism that the major free cable channels are rather more adventurous in their programming than the broadcast networks. This willingness to take chances has led to some very good shows such as Monk, The Closer, Mad Men, Nero Wolfe, and the like.
However, as the cable channels seek to fill their schedules with more and more shows, the ingenuity and originality factors have necessarily suffered in the past couple of years. That appears to be the case with the new TNT crime drama Perception.
By giving it the time slot just after the network’s most widely admired show, The Closer, TNT is clearly placing high expectations on Perception, and viewers can be expected to do likewise. Alas, it appears both may end up disappointed. Having The Closer as a lead-in should give the show some time to develop viewer loyalty. As should be expected, Perception did well in the ratings for its premiere Monday night, drawing 5.6 million viewers (live plus same-day). That’s an 8 percent drop from the 6.1 million people watching The Closer, not a bad first-night audience at all.
What the first-night viewers of Perception saw was what TV producers and distributors typically try to do: create something that’s the same as previously successful shows but just a little different.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with that — it’s what makes shows such as Psych and The Mentalist follow the success of Monk. Here’s how it works in Perception: An eccentric genius neuroscience professor, Dr. Daniel Pierce (Eric McCormack), teams up with one of his former students, Chicago-based FBI agent Kate Moretti (Rachael Leigh Cook), to solve mysteries. Pierce’s credibility is undermined, however, by his susceptibility to schizophrenic hallucinations. That’s his designated quirk, a necessity for modern-day TV detectives. Pierce, for her part, has a history of testy relationships with her superiors in the FBI.
Pierce’s insights into the crimes are shown in a variety of ways, one of which is the highlighting of letters on the screen. There’s also some occasional philosophizing from the lead character, as he talks about perception and reality in his classroom lectures.
Thus it’s easy to see elements of Monk, The Closer, Psych, The Mentalist, and the movies The Oxford Murders and A Beautiful Mind mixed into Perception. What all the TV shows in that list share is a protagonist and close associates whom audiences like, root for, and want to invite into their homes every week. It’s a proven formula for TV success.
Alas, that’s the very thing Perception lacks. McCormick gives a reasonably persuasive portrayal of the troubled genius, but he doesn’t bring much personality to the role, at least not in the pilot episode. Most of his repertoire here appears to consist of frowns, which is a bit surprising given his work in the popular TV comedy Will and Grace. Cook plays a somewhat clichéd character, the overly intense police detective, and although she comes off as a mite more personable than McCormick, she doesn’t get much of a chance to convey the kind of winsome personality she brought to her role as fake-psychic detective Shawn Spencer’s paramour in Psych. Not even close, in fact.
The main case investigated in the pilot episode is as old-hat as the central characters, centering on the murder of a pharmaceutical company executive. A researcher for the company has falsified the results of a drug study, which would have resulted in an unsafe drug being placed on the market if Pierce and Moretti hadn’t providentially caught him while investigating a murder. The problem, as you may imagine, is that this mystery angle is neither original nor interesting. Casting a big drug company as a villain is, of course, the contemporary equivalent of making a sinister Chinaman or haughty German the murderer. (I can see it already: “Next week on Perception: Hitler clones!”)
Most of the screen time, in any case, is devoted to Pierce’s personal problems (another contemporary policier cliché) and the rather obvious plot angle in which his hallucinations — shown as if they were real — are actually the way his brain works on the puzzle to provide insights that will ultimately solve the mystery. There’s nothing wrong with the latter idea, but the writers don’t do anything interesting with it. And it’s rather difficult to see how it could be made interesting, actually, since all it involves is Pierce talking with people who aren’t really there, which is not intrinsically any more interesting than watching someone talk to people who really are there, after all.
In another example of the writers taking the most obvious path, Pierce demonstrates that a person is a human lie detector by showing the character’s ability to identify former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton as liars. Wow. Anybody else would have been a more creative choice.
Similarly, throughout the pilot episode Pierce engages in deep conversations with an ex-girlfriend, and when it’s revealed (plot spoiler alert) that she, too, is an hallucination, it’s no surprise to any reasonably competent observer.
A second mystery element in the pilot episode shows more promise, though unfortunately it is given only a few minutes of screen time. It involves a murder in which a pair of adulterers conspires to kill one’s spouse, and it includes a decent twist before the killers are revealed. The motive, of course, is nothing new, but the route taken to get there is rather interesting.
That’s how the most successful mysteries typically work, and if future episodes of Perception concentrate less on being clever in the basic concept and more on being clever in execution, it will have a better chance of success.
S. T. Karnick is editor of The American Culture.
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