It is an unfortunate result of living under American cultural hegemony that we are treated to an awful lot of shit television. Much of it is drivel, both drama and comedy, yet it clogs up the schedule each day. While making perfect hangover viewing that acts as a kind of valium to dull your aching head, the search for anything more substantial can be difficult what with all those repeats of How I Met Your Mother in the way. Occasionally though, something is spat out that is so putrid in its social ramifications that it bears writing about.
This is not a review, so I’ll get my judgment out early: Perception is a terrible entry into the already bloated genre of forensic crime dramas that not only suffers for its mediocrity and poor production, but more importantly buys into a vision of mental illness that paints those who suffer as savant-like beings who are able to turn their condition to their advantage and achieve ends in a manner which is almost superhuman. This is a damaging discourse that paints a false image of the hardships that result from conditions such as depression, schizophrenia or autism. It is insensitive to those who suffer, while keeping the majority ignorant of their plight.
I watched the first episode (Season 1 has already aired in the US) after seeing the advert which ran the tasteless tagline “There’s madness in his method”. As I feared, the show’s treatment of mental illness is fairly crass. Most obviously, it uses visual techniques reminiscent of other crime dramas such as Sherlock in order to give the audience something to look at while the protagonist furrows his brow in deep thought. Unfortunately in this case it is tied to the main character’s schizophrenia and paranoia, the “hook” of the show, in effect sexing up his condition with digital wizardry that is a far cry from reality. Letters float around on screen to rearrange themselves as an anagram while a hallucination is portrayed as a kind of spirit guide, disappearing only when the crime has been solved and helping the protagonist solve the case (this despite the character, an established neuroscientist, actually refuting the argument that his visions could be some kind of subconscious aid).
The tone of the program and treatment of the main character, who is frequently described as “eccentric”, is also troubling. With its part-cartoon logic (in which an FBI agent leaps from a second-storey fire escape onto a fleeing suspect), serious issues like coping mechanisms for anxiety or the protagonists interactions with vivid hallucinations come off as being slapstick or played for awkward laughs, which smacks of disrespect to those who may feel embarrassed that their conditions can have very public consequences.
Perhaps the most nauseating is the concluding moral. “If we’re able to treat those people living with neurological disorders, restore them to ‘normalcy,’ well of course we’re helping them, but sometimes might we also be stripping away what makes them unique, robbing them of an essential part of who they are? ” Maybe in Hollywood, where mental conditions bestow cognitive abilities akin to superpowers, the closing message of Perception would have a point. Applied to the real world, this is a horrible fucking way to treat those with mental illness (or in fact any disability). Those with mental illnesses are not defined by their condition. They are people, with preferences, hobbies, motivations, dreams and beliefs, just like everybody else. Their condition, no matter how debilitating, is not their being. This is made even worse by a scene in which a man suffering aphasia (the inability to comprehend spoken language according to the show) is used as a literal “human lie detector” due to his heightened sense of speech inflection. This man is never revisited save for in passing and is barely humanised past his first name. His disability is turned into a useful ability to aid the main characters, but as far as the show is concerned his usefulness stops there.
Discussion of mental illness needs to progress beyond these examples of slapstick or savant-like abilities if we hope to create a more understanding discourse about conditions such as paranoia or schizophrenia. Taboo is not preferable, but an overly simplistic and purely positive representation of very real and debilitating conditions will result in worse treatment of sufferers when they don’t match up to the unrealistic expectations of others.
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