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Romanticizing Mental Illness: A Review of Perception

  • Alex Wainer TheFish.com Contributing Writer
  • 2012 7 Aug
Romanticizing Mental Illness: A Review of <i>Perception</i>

"What is reality?" That's the question asked by Dr. Daniel Pierce, professor of neuroscience at a prominent Chicago university, in the first scene of the pilot for the new TNT series, Perception. Raising the question in his classroom, he answers it: "Reality is a figment of your imagination." It's your perception of everyday experience, but also dreams, hallucinations, and fantasies, for as far as the brain is concerned, Pierce asserts, it's the same neurochemical activity. 

That sets up the quandary of the latest crime/mystery procedural whose hero is a specialist whose gift is also his curse, just like Adrian Monk's obsessive/compulsive disorder that allowed him to see broken patterns that led to solved crimes. Daniel Pierce, whom the Perception website calls "eccentric," has his own quirky condition that helps him solve mysteries: schizophrenia. Yes, brilliant academic of A Beautiful Mind meets consulting specialists as in The Mentalist, Lie to Me and Numb3rs. There's even a little House, M. D. on the side with a scruffy but sexy looking outsider. It worked for the other shows and now the cable network wants to try it with a new shtick, a protagonist with full-blown mental illness.

The formula is certainly helped by star Eric McCormack, (Will and Grace) a very appealing actor who is the main draw of the series. With his shaggy haircut and highlights, and trendy scarf, he stands out amidst the dull suited FBI types when he's brought in to analyze the brain science aspect of a crime. As in Numb3rs and other crime shows built around such gimmicks, this somewhat limits the plots to whatever aberrant neurological conditions writers can work into the scripts. In the second episode, a man having an affair didn't know it was with his disguised wife since his brain lacked the ability to distinguish facial features. Pierce arrives on the scene and identifies the affliction of the week that helps crack the case. 

Recruited by a former student, FBI agent Kate Moretti (Rachael Leigh Cook), looks a tad too fresh-faced for the job. The requisite skeptic, agent Robert Probert (Jonathan Scarfe) is there to roll his eyes at Daniel's eccentricities and offbeat theorizing. The derivative and familiar concept could have overcome these weaknesses because of McCormack's appeal and with sharper writing. That potential was hinted at in the third episode which featured a rapist/killer who surfaces every five years to strike again. Daniel and Kate find the only victim to escape from the 1986 attack, played, in a resonant casting coupe, by Sheryl Lee, (Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks). 

A head injury in the attack has left her with no short term memory, so after being taken off a stupor-inducing drug since her attack 25 years earlier, she is kept in the room she grew up in as a teenager and will always think she's 17. Daniel uses this to help her recall the information about the killer needed to catch him. Lee's performance as her character's teenage self was chillingly good and her permanently teenaged mental state made for a bittersweet episode.

McCormack's character is sympathetic and it's easy to see his romantic appeal. Unmarried, he often meets with a longtime friend, Natalie, a serenely beautiful blond played by Kelly Rowan to discuss cases and how they are affecting him. Do these two have a thing together?

But the problem with Perception lies at the core of Dr. Pierce's conception as a character. In the first episode, we see that he's quirky, and listens to classical music on headphones to lessen his stress in public. He has a live-in student assistant, Max Lewicki (Arjay Smith) who helps him manage his schedule and stress. So far, nothing more odd than defective detective Adrian Monk's coping mechanisms. But in the first episode, while helping investigate the murder of a drug company executive, Pierce is visited at home by one of the technicians he'd seen at the company's laboratory. After the man pleads with him for help, Pierce calls Lewicki downstairs.  But when Lewicki comes down, he sees no one but Daniel. 

Our protagonist sees people who aren't there, except in his dysfunctional brain's imagination. One of Lewicki's jobs is to tell Daniel if he's hallucinating--again. But the phantom caller keeps returning and engaging Pierce in a discussion of the case and we soon realize that his subconscious mind is creating these apparitions as a means of solving the case and which disappear when the mystery is solved.

This would be a neat wrinkle for a new show except that it perpetuates dangerous myths about mental illness. Borrowing from Ron Howard's dramatic device in A Beautiful Mind of having Russell Crowe's character, the real-life Nobel Prize winner John Nash see imaginary people rather than what he actually experienced, hearing voices, it grossly misrepresents the horrible symptoms that plague real life schizophrenics. Five minutes of reading from any number of sites, like this one, demonstrates that most who experience symptoms are more likely to hear voices rather than see people who give them useful information deduced by their subconscious. 

Yes, there are also hallucinations, along with delusions, paranoia, and jumbled thoughts, as well as others, making anything like normal functioning nearly impossible for sufferers of this affliction. Pierce's condition of seeing non-existent persons allows the show to dramatically interact with his brilliant mind to figure out the mystery of the week. But real schizophrenia is disabling rather than enabling. Sure, as presented, Pierce is quite sympathetic in his struggles but the show asserts that the cases give his mind a healthy outlet for his inner turmoil. And his friend Natalie? Yes, she's also a figment of his imagination, a neurochemical romance only in his mind.

It seems impossible to see how such a premise can sustain a show without scandalously distorting both the nature of what schizophrenia is and the awful suffering of its victims. All sorts of mental illnesses are already misunderstood by the pubic. This show, out of touch with the reality of real psychosis, will only add to that misperception. 

*This Review First Published 8/7/2012

**Watch Perception Mondays on TNT