Enough with the ultraquirky crime solvers! For years now, TV executives have tried to push beyond the stale case-focused “Law & Order” procedural model with series such as “Monk,” “Unforgettable,” “Person of Interest,” “Numb3rs,” “The Mentalist,” “Medium,” and “Bones.” They’ve moved from straight-up to totally bent. But now the ultraquirky crime-solver model has itself becomea tired formula. Meet the new cliché, same as the old cliché.
Which brings me to TNT’s “Perception,” which stars Eric McCormack and premieres tonight at 10 after the return of “The Closer.”
The crime drama enters the schedule at a moment when its brilliant-but-damaged-sleuth premise feels instantly played out, no matter how feverishly the writers up the ante on the sleuth’s damage. McCormack’s Daniel Pierce is a schizophrenic neuroscience professor who has an unusual ability to crack difficult crimes, which he lends to the FBI on a weekly basis. How quirky is Daniel, who refuses to take his meds? Dude has more tics than a clock. He still listens to cassettes, he is profoundly addicted to crossword puzzles and anagrams, and, oh yeah, he has delusions and often talks to and gets clues from people who aren’t really there.
Daniel may win the ultraquirky crime-solver Olympics — he has a real mental illness with hallucinations, not some trumped-up idiosyncrasy like Dr. “Bones” Brennan. He stands conducting invisible orchestras in the college quad!
One of the things I admire about FX’s “Justified” is the way Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant, is so easy-going and natural. He’s a lead character who has a lot of distinctive charm — he’s not a bland just-the-facts type — and yet he hasn’t been bogged down with excessive eccentricities. His peculiarities qualify as personality and temperament, not strained “quirkiness.”
On “Perception,” the FBI is represented by Daniel’s former student, Agent Kate Moretti (Rachael Leigh Cook), who brings her toughest cases to him. Naturally, Daniel dissects the crimes like no trained professional would, as he receives guidance from his visions in the same way the doctor on CBS’s canceled “A Gifted Man” got advice from his dead ex-wife. He always seems to have an “aha!” moment when he uncovers some kind of rare disorder in the perp or the victim. Kate’s colleagues roll their eyes at Daniel, of course, but she staunchly defends him, as does his student assistant, Max (Arjay Smith), who lives with him to help keep him grounded. Daniel also gets support from his mysterious friend Natalie (Kelly Rowan). No one seems to be pushing him hard to go back on his meds, though — an issue that might raise hackles among mental health professionals who see the show as a romanticization of mental illness or as some kind of anti-prescription prescription.
The cases themselves are weakly constructed, with more holes than a box of doughnuts. In the July 23 episode, Daniel helps Kate track the “Date Night Killer,” who has been inactive for years and is now back in business. They find an old victim (Sheryl Lee) who didn’t die but has been catatonic in an institution for decades, and they proceed to — well, I won’t spoil it, but the whole situation becomes increasingly absurd, even unintentionally camp and Miss Havisham-y. One of the things “The Closer” has always brought to the table is above-average crimes-of-the-week. But “Perception” pastes together its mysteries loosely. Just because Daniel undergoes logical glitches doesn’t give the “Perception” writers license to deliver hazy solutions.
I am inclined to root for McCormack. He was a huge part of one of TV’s most cleverly subversive sitcoms, “Will & Grace,” which turned sexual orientation into something funny instead of fraught. McCormack’s neurotic, sympathetic Will encouraged mainstream viewers to relax around gay people and, perhaps, as Joe Biden suggested (or leaked) in May on “Meet the Press,” the prospect of gay equal rights. I want him to find TV success after “Will & Grace,” just as Julia Louis-Dreyfus has after “Seinfeld,” rather than find himself in a professional corner in the shadow of his early cultural impact (see: Jason Alexander).
But no matter how much McCormack throws himself into his “Perception” role, balancing dramatic “A Beautiful Mind”-like heft with “Monk”-likehumor, he’s still driving a faulty vehicle. No amount of good will from “Will & Grace” can change that.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.