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Review: Where ‘House’ meets ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ there is ‘Perception’

Eric McCormack, left, and Arjay Smith in "Perception" on TNT.
(TNT, TNT)

Oh, Adrian Monk, what have you wrought?

When Andy Breckman nudged his OCD-plagued detective onto the screen in 2002, no one could have predicted the long-term, still-resonating effect Tony Shalhoub’s Mr. Monk would have on an unsuspecting nation. Running for eight years, “Monk” not only made Shalhoub a permanent fixture on the Emmy roll call (nominated eight times, won three) but the quirky detective procedural also helped USA, once best known for game show reruns and “Silk Stalkings,” become one of the most consistently entertaining and certainly best branded of the basic cable channels.

More important, it made damaged the new smart. From addiction (“House,""Nurse Jackie,""Breaking Bad”) to Asperger’s (“Big Bang Theory,""Alphas,"possibly"Sherlock”), from the socially stunted savant (“Numb3rs,""Bones”) and broken-hearted and/or brain-damaged genius (“The Mentalist,""Fringe”) to the unadulterated psychopath (“Dexter”), if you don’t have a dysfunction, and possibly a diagnosis, you probably don’t have a television show.

So there is something simply inevitable about the Monday debut of TNT’s “Perception,” in which the hero is — yes, I know, but he is — a paranoid schizophrenic. As played by Eric McCormack, Dr. Daniel Pierce is so deeply ill that he experiences regular full-blown hallucinations. (Three words and a long-range spoiler alert: Joan of Arc.) Yet he is also med-free and so high functioning that he manages to not only teach neuroscience at a highfalutin’ university but also solve cases for the FBI.

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How on earth?, you might ask. Well, his deep knowledge of brain disorders helps, but mostly it’s those wacky full-blown hallucinations, which indirectly guide him to key details that he’s noticed but hasn’t registered properly.

If you can overlook both the derivative nature of the set-up — “House” meets “A Beautiful Mind” and adopts “Monk” — and the dangerous absurdity of defining schizophrenia as just another way of looking at things, “Perception” has a certain summery, tweet-friendly entertainment value. Attempting to shed his “Will & Grace” comedic past, McCormack has taken the “Rain Man” route.

Though not quite up to radiating the chronic pain of Hugh Laurie’s House or the emotional blankness of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, McCormack’s angularity of face and body does project a twitchy kind of melancholy. He is also given the regulation bag o’ tics to work with — music calms Dr. Pierce, but he listens to it only on cassette tapes; food must be presented geometrically; he solves crossword puzzles the way others make grocery lists; and he refuses to carry a cellphone (a trait shared by so many eccentric detectives, including most recently “Longmire’s,” that perhaps it should be retired.)

The dean (LeVar Burton) of this Harvard-like university allows a paranoid schizophrenic to move among the student body because, of course, Pierce is brilliant and because his long-suffering teaching assistant, Max Lewicki (Arjay Smith), is there to keep him on schedule and presumably out of trouble. Ah, but trouble walks across the campus on Day 1, in the form of feisty FBI agent and former student Kate Moretti (Rachael Leigh Cook), who knows all about Pierce’s “condition” but loves him anyway.

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That is not the reason she’s there, of course. No, she Needs His Help in a life and death way. So before Pierce can consult with his sensible sounding board Natalie (Kelly Rowan), he’s off, grimly clutching his security-briefcase to his chest, but not in such a way as to disturb his perfectly looped woolen scarf.

The crimes of the first four episodes revel in plot twists and medical conditions so ludicrous that they eventually become endearing, as does, against all odds, McCormack’s performance. Amid all the ridiculous habits and visits from his various neuro-projections, Pierce has moments when he does seem like a man haunted — if not by the anguish of true mental illness, then certainly by a mind that never ceases, that blurs the boundaries between perception and reality.

If only the strokes weren’t so broad and easily anticipated, if only the paranoid schizophrenia weren’t so actually horrible and devastating, rather than quirky and revelatory. Co-creators Mike Sussman and Kenneth Biller are on to something with their exploration of the endless and fascinating facets of perception. But too often it seems like they have chosen to afflict their character in this manner simply because all the other dysfunctions have already been taken.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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‘Perception’

Where: TNT

When: 10 p.m. Monday

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Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)


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