In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the ghost of the Prince of Denmark’s slain father appears and sends his son off on the trail of an uncle who became king through murder.
Dr. Daniel Pierce (Eric McCormack), the neuroscience professor who is the lead character in the TNT drama “Perception,” premiering Monday, July 9, doesn’t exactly see dead people, but he does see people who aren’t really there — and sometimes they’re helpful in solving the crimes brought to him by a former student, FBI agent Kate Moretti (Rachael Leigh Cook).
Pierce has paranoid schizophrenia, which causes hallucinations and delusions. But at the same time, he has a keen intellect and knowledge of how the human brain works, which allows him to discern patterns and underlying motives in human behavior.
Against medical advice, Pierce decides to go off his medications and use his hallucinations to help give him an insight into crimes that his conscious mind may not be able to process.
“They are the voices in my head,” McCormack tells Zap2it, talking in his trailer between scenes on the show’s sets in a smaller city north of Los Angeles. “It’s the other part of my brain talking to me and saying, ‘You know the answer to this; you’ve just got to work through it.’
“It’s a procedural, but there’s also a real emotional core. Nobody wants a boring leading man.”
But working on these “Rubik’s Cubes of mystery,” as McCormack calls them, is still risky for Pierce because it interrupts his careful routine, which helps him cope without the help of drugs.
“No one can do what Pierce does,” says McCormack. “He’s not on his meds, so the best way he can help himself, besides diet and scheduling and routine, is solving puzzles. The dichotomy is that when she comes to him with these cases, it can really throw his routine.”
Pierce also doesn’t like how the meds affect his thought processes.
“That’s actually one of the things that comes up in the pilot and in several episodes,” says McCormack. “Maybe my disorder makes me who I am. Maybe this is part of me. So that’ll be a very big part of the season, when people start to ask, ‘How can someone who knows so much … why can’t a physician heal himself? How can he not be on meds when he, as much as anyone, knows the value?’
“I don’t want to become who I become [on meds]. I don’t want my senses dulled, even though I know it’s happening.”
For Kate, even though utilizing Pierce might not be FBI procedure, it’s a smart career move.
“She’s incredibly ambitious,” says Cook. “And I’m not the only one assigned to the case. Other people are investigating, so they can get their own shows.
“But I’m on these cases, and my character is very ambitious, so she sees him as a secret weapon. She gets information to take things to him. She has enough trust in him. These things are somewhat classified, and she knows she can bring it to him.”
Also starring are Arjay Smith as Max Lewicki, Pierce’s teaching assistant, who also functions as a sort of minder and valet; Kelly Rowan as Natalie Vincent, Daniel’s best friend, former lover and intellectual sparring partner; and LeVar Burton, in the recurring role of Paul Haley, a dean at Pierce’s university.
On this day on set, Pierce is watching an interrogation while also having a philosophical debate with a hallucination of the French military leader, mystic and Roman Catholic saint Joan of Arc.
“In this particular episode,” says McCormack, “it’s a kid who is 16 who hears the voice of God. A cult has built around him. My character, he couldn’t be more atheist if he tried.
“So the scientist comes face-to-face with this kid who truly believes God speaks to him. He’s such a sweet and messiahlike kid that it rocks my character’s bedrock belief in nothing, or in science alone. They have this really interesting relationship.
“And then I diagnose that he basically has what Joan of Arc had, which is temporal-lobe epilepsy, which does cause you to feel that you’re hearing voices. But if you fix the temporal-lobe epilepsy by removing the tumor, are you then taking God away? Not unlike, if I take my meds, am I taking my hallucinations away? That’s the theme of the show, ‘How much reality is too much?’ “
As to whether Pierce is like any of his former roles, McCormack says, “He’s not quite like anyone I’ve ever played. I’ve been referring to it as ‘A Beautiful Mind’ meets ‘Columbo.’ He’s close to that, not just because he has schizophrenia, but with that kind of brilliance comes an arrogance.
“Pierce has social issues in the world, but in the classroom, those disappear, and he is a great speaker, and he’s passionate.”