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Mind Over Pop Culture: Perception

Perception, the TNT television show, has an interesting hook. The main character, Dr. Daniel Pierce, is a neuroscientist who assists the FBI with cases. He also has paranoid schizophrenia. Instead of making him an empty shell of nervous tics, the show makes Dr. Pierce a fully formed person.

Entering its second season, Perception focuses on Dr. Pierce, played wonderfully by Eric McCormack, and Agent Kate Moretti, played by Rachel Leigh Cook. She’s a former student of his who brings him in to help with cases. Together, they solve crime and try to understand the brain. Dr. Oliver Sacks, the world renowned author and neuroscientist, is an advisor on the show, which helps with the accuracy of science and with the portrayal of brain disorders of all kinds.

The show sets itself apart from other basic cable crime shows by trying to depict what it would be like to solve crimes when you have schizophrenia. They do a decent job. One recurring theme of the show is a person from the case, often the victim, will appear as a delusion to Daniel, and help him solve the case. It’s a story technique that works better than it should because the actors playing delusions play them like regular characters. Often, neuroscience helps solve the crime, as does Daniel’s unique thinking patterns. We see Daniel as a renowned scientist and professor, who is respected by his peers. Even when he’s in crisis, they are supportive of him and his condition. He takes care of himself, even though he has an assistant who lives with him. We even see him going on dates, which is pretty groundbreaking for a character with schizophrenia.

The portrayal of schizophrenia isn’t perfect, though. Daniel veers close to one of the annoying stereotypes of characters with mental health conditions, the superhero. Usually, if a show wants to highlight that a person with a mental health condition isn’t like the others with mental health conditions, that character is shown as a virtuous superhero, able to makes leaps of logic that solve cases and help the hero learn about himself. Daniel doesn’t fit that description completely, but he certainly has traits of it. He’s never wrong. His neuroscience always solves the cases, not the police work. No one is concerned that his best friend is a hallucination, which is another problem. His hallucinations are perfect for TV, but not realistic. They only happen at convenient times and aren’t generally scary or angry. The characters just tell Daniel what he needs to know.

I like Perception, and if you like crime shows, I think you will too. I like to believe that characters like Daniel are a stepping stone to better, more accurate portrayals of people with schizophrenia. This character is a far cry from the way the disease is often portrayed, and I still think any progress is good progress. I’m hoping a show like this leads to shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men focusing on a person with a mental health condition. Daniel’s a step towards portraying people with mental health conditions as fully rounded people, and helping a new generation see them that way, as complete people with an illness.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the flip of schizophrenia in movies with The Caveman’s Valentine. Do you watch Perception? What do you think?

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