New TV series Perception challenges reality

In quite a departure from his Will & Grace days, the actor Eric McCormack returns to the small screen and brings with him a bunch of imaginary friends and a sizeable dose of paranoid schizophrenia.

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To portray mental illness as a gift or super power that can be tapped to bring criminals to justice takes a special actor who can parade both the wonders of a uniquely wired mind as well as the heartbreaking downside of affliction.

In a nuanced performance that's both sophisticated and poignant, Eric McCormack shows he's no longer that lighthearted sitcom guy from Will & Grace. In Perception, his new one-hour drama series, he slips into a darker arena where - as the neuroscience professor Dr Daniel Pierce - his paranoid schizophrenia is both his saving grace and his curse.

"I think what I love about the character is that as a neuroscientist who is also suffering symptoms of schizophrenia, his brain is like his best friend and his worst enemy," says McCormack.

Soon he finds himself recruited by the FBI, thanks to his intimate knowledge of human behaviour and a masterful grasp of the way a mind works. Pierce also possesses an uncanny ability to see patterns and what lies beneath people's conscious emotions.

Despite his brilliance, however, in disquieting scenes reminiscent of A Beautiful Mind, Pierce struggles with hallucinations and paranoid delusions. Seeing isn't necessarily believing; Pierce is never quite sure if the soul sitting next to him is real or imaginary.

Amazingly, it's his mentally manufactured characters from the id — these manifestations of his subconscious intelligence — who connect the dots, create links and give his conscious mind the clues he needs to crack the case.

"He has the intellectual hubris of a scientist, but he has the passion and the empathy of a teacher," says the actor. "He loves to share this, to mix that with the symptoms of his condition. To go from being a very funny, flirty lecturer one minute to absolutely crippled socially the next … is also the secret to making him an interesting and complex character."

Despite his immense charisma, Pierce is hardly without flaws. He refuses to take his meds, even though antipsychotics could control his symptoms, saying they shutter his intellect and his ability to reason — which often leads him to behave in irrational, potentially dangerous ways.

In unfamiliar situations, he quickly becomes overwhelmed, often turning to crossword puzzles or listening to classical music on his vintage cassette Walkman — his arms wildly gesticulating as he "conducts" the symphony in his head — to regain self-control and make things right again.

As well, his loneliness here is palpable. As he confides in his ex-love and intellectual equal, Natalie Vincent, played with superb empathy by Kelly Rowan, she reminds him: "You are petrified of anything even remotely resembling an intimate connection with another human being."

His sombre reply: "I hear voices. I see things that aren't there. I talk to the walls ... How am I ever going to have an intimate connection with anybody?"

All is not lost, though. His future love interest would appear to be the FBI agent Kate Moretti — played with audacity and verve by the series co-star Rachael Leigh Cook — a former student who invites him to consult on peculiar cases. Their chemistry seems destined to percolate and warm up down the road.

Rounding out the key people in Pierce's life are his teaching assistant Max Lewicki (Arjay Smith), his "handler" who keeps him in line and on task, and his dear friend and dean Paul Haley (LeVar Burton of Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation).

At the end of the day, McCormack, as Pierce, dares viewers to question the fabric of reality, even as he lectures his students: "Reality is a figment of your imagination. Who here hasn't woken up breathless from a nightmare and thought: 'Oh, thank God, it's just a dream'?

"That's because the neurochemical impulses fired when we're dreaming, or fantasising, or hallucinating, are indistinguishable from the ones banging around inside our skulls when we actually experience those events. So, if what we perceive is often wrong, how can we ever know what's real … and what isn't?"

Perception is broadcast at 11pm, Tuesdays on OSN First.


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