One of the things television has done best is give us some of the smartest, snappiest mystery series in any form. Like good page turners, they don't change the world, but they're infinitely entertaining when everything falls into place -- the mysteries and the series components.
This is true of "Perception," an ABC Studios series that airs on TNT. It isn't the first show of its kind, nor will it be the last, but it's among the best thanks to its cast, writing and production values. Filmed in Canada (as many cable shows are, but perhaps also so that star Eric McCormack can go home nights), you can spot familiar Canadian TV favorites in various shows, like SCTV's Dave Thomas.
McCormack is spot-on in a role that calls for his blend of familiarity and complexity. Though he works with a fine supporting cast, this is his show to carry on his own and he runs with it. When his Dr. Daniel Pierce is teaching his college students, coming to a "I know who did it" moment or getting on one of his soapboxes about big companies and secret conspiracies, he's the stage-trained Shakespearean.
When his character is grappling with his mental difficulties in connecting with people, hiding from group events or chatting with imaginary people, he's subtle and introspective. He's never goes full up Shatner nor downward to Michael J. Pollard.
He's also the kind of actor that is perfect for television, like Bill Bixby is his heyday, who always seemed to have a major or moderate series success. He makes a difficult character likable and relatable. Pierce won't take his meds, or really open up to Kate, or accept himself, or etc., yet the integrity of McCormack invests him with hope, charm and humor.
Rachael Leigh Cook plays the daughter of a retired cop who was a student of Pierce's. She's doesn't play Moretti too hard or overly assertive just because of what she does for a living, as is commonly shown on TV and movies. She has strength without losing her sense of irony, she can focus on the job (and has the most difficult expositional lines to deliver) and come across as a whole person.
LeVar Burton, who cannot be anything less than excellent, is a delightful blend between Linda Edelstein's Cuddy on "House" and David White's Larry Tate on Bewitched. He seizes opportunities to promote his campus -- and Pierce -- yet has to deal with the challenges inherent in the system and his most distinguished faculty member. Having attended colleges, I can believe a Daniel Pierce can exist, while it's a bit of a stretch that Dr. Gregory House kept his job as long as he did (though I loved that show, too).
You might chuckle at some of the tried and true TV whodunit standby lines and how this show, like most fantasy mystery shows, play hard and fast with the real rules of general behavior, business decorum, legal issues and medical procedures.
After watching a few shows it's difficult to avoid getting captivated by the arc of the show, in the same manner as House and Monk drew viewers in. And like "Columbo," it's a blast to follow the clues and enjoy the twists.
The show also plays with your head the way Hitchcock did. Pierce's condition finds him interacting with people who aren't there. Some scenes resemble Dean Jones arguing with an invisible Peter Ustinov in "Blackbeard's Ghost." But we as viewers aren't always sure if we're seeing real people or even real events.
The only way it falls short of "Columbo" is that it is more explicit in its treatment of violence, and occasionally sex, its present day need to be contemporary. Perhaps "Columbo" might have had to be like this if it were on today.
My wife, 13-year-old son and I watched all ten shows, some twice -- which is unusual for a mystery series. Can't wait for Season 2 to start on June 25.
PERCEPTION EPISODE GUIDE - SEASON 1
1. Pilot (July 9, 2012)
Superb liftoff for the series, establishing the characters of Dr. Pierce, Kate Moretti, Max, Haley and others; not an easy task because there's a lot to set up in addition to a crisp corporate pharmaceutical mystery to solve.
2. Faces (July 16, 2012)
A trail of deception and mistaken identity is connected with a witness who is unable to distinguish faces.
3. 86'd (July 23, 2012)
A brain damaged victim who perpetually lives the same day in 1986 is the key to a unsolved serial killer case that resurfaces after over two decades.
4. Cipher (July 30, 2012)
Daniel follows a challenging trail of puzzling codes to locate a killer bent on revenge for corporate manipulation.
5. The Messenger (August 6, 2012)
Skillfully written and acted episode about a young man who believes he can talk to God, while nonbeliever Daniel thinks it's really a life-threatening brain condition.
6. Lovesick (August 20, 2012)
This episode is probably the closest this generally cerebral cable series comes to network style voyeurism; the victim is a controversial therapist whose treatments have dramatically affected the lives of his patients and those in their lives, so parental discretion advised.
7. Nemesis (August 27, 2012)
Daniel thinks the FBI has incorrectly identified a schizophrenic as the prime suspect in a murder, putting Moretti at odds with a stern new administrator, whom she wants to impress. Daniel also tells Moretti about his condition in this episode.
8. Kilimanjaro (September 3, 2012)
A brain-damaged football player, a mysterious troubled student, and one of the former stars of the Narnia films figure into the murder of a young coed.
9. Shadow (September 10, 2012)
Daniel can't verify the reality of a source who sets him on the trail of a murder connected to a rigged election and an ambitious secret society. Nice to see SCTV legend Dave Thomas in a small role, but Stephen plays hallucinated JFK more like a somber Regis Philbin (but maybe that's how Daniel perceives him).
10. Light (September 17, 2012)
Daniel, now committed to an institution, learns that he is right about the murdered informant but also meets a doctor who resembles his closest companion, Natalie.