American TV really can’t get enough of Brilliant Eccentrics. The experts who sort-of freelance for the police and routinely outwit criminals by combining misleading interpretations of exotic-sounding psychological conditions and/or A Unique Understanding Of The Criminal Mind with unconventional social skills. That last one is the bringer of light entertainment in a way that borders on the distasteful in a TV show, depending on the talent in the writers’ room.
Perception is the latest show to offer an eccentric character who utilises a ‘unique outlook’ to solve crimes. Kind of picking up where Ron Howard’s film A Beautiful Mind left off, and taking broad wardrobe inspiration from the BBC’s Sherlock, Perception gives us Daniel Pierce, a neuroscientist with paranoid schizophrenia who helps out the FBI when they’re facing a case they can’t handle, which is roughly once a week.
Monk was one of the first Brilliant Eccentrics of the past decade, focussing on the crime-solving skills of a detective who also happened to have ‘oh-so-hilarious’ Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The Randy Newman theme tune sprinkled musical fluff to signpost the family-friendly tone. House (and Hugh Laurie specifically) brought some class to the concept of the eccentric and antisocial protagonist, proving a global hit for much of its almost decade-long run.
While House mashed up CSI and ER, crime-fighting has been the enduring theme in this curious sub-genre, with successive police forces relying on a Medium (helpful supernatural visions), The Mentalist (helpful behavioural expert), the exploits of a helpful body language expert in Tim Roth’s Lie to Me and now even Sherlock Holmes’ ‘unique outlook’ in Elementary. That’s the American version of Sherlock that the CBS network decided deserved a full-season order when they realised it was open house on the copyright.
Perception fits cosily into the niche. Daniel Pierce’s schizophrenia and more general Brilliant Eccentricity gives him (occasionally useful) imaginary friends and makes all kinds of clues whirl around in the air for him using eye-catching digital effects as this dishevelled academic Figures Everything Out. Paranoid schizophrenia and Detective Brilliance have rarely looked so pretty on-screen.
It seems inevitable that sooner or later the ratings will fall as they did with House, and the eccentricity will disappear from our TV screens. It’ll be a nerve-racking time for the TV Police as they adjust to having to do some actual crime-solving themselves.
The TV Police Chief will address his Cops in the cluttered precinct briefing room: “This is it, people! The time that we all dreaded has finally come! We’re on our own again. No more help from the dishevelled freelancers who we’ve come to rely on to help solve crimes, week in, week out, within a tidy 50-minute timeframe.
“But you know what? We’re not rubbish at what we do. This is our job. We’re trained for this. Ok, so we’re probably not going to get useful psychic visions that help steer us in the right direction and we might need a little – or a lot – longer to figure out the cryptic clues left behind by those crazy serial killers with a taste for theatrics. None of us have any exciting psychological conditions, but to be honest that’s probably a good thing.
“This precinct is going to be a lot less like a glossy and slyly upbeat primetime crime procedural – you know the ones where the cast looks like they should be modelling in their spare time (oh, wait…), everyone’s default setting is Nice And Noble (Nan?), and the office is gloriously open plan with lots of posh-looking glass panelling sub-dividing pleasingly-lit office cubicles.
“It’s going to be a lot more like the gritty stuff you used to see in The Wire: underfunded, politically messy and where an antisocial individual doesn’t have their uglier character traits counter-balanced by an unparalleled understanding of Criminal Genius.
“They’re just an idiot that no-one likes.”