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Neuroscientist Turned Crime Solver in "Perception"


ERIC MCCORMACK: (As Doctor Daniel Pierce) In this class, we're interested in what goes on in the brain. And if we were to put someone in an FMRI machine and watch what happens when they make up a lie, we'd see their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex light up like a Christmas tree...


MCCORMACK: (As Doctor Daniel Pierce) ...because we use our brains when we lie. We use our brains when we're being lied to. But can the brain ever lie to itself?



This is not a clip from SCIENCE FRIDAY. I know it - doesn't it sound like it could have been in an interview that we did, talking to a neurologist? It's actually the latest - clip from the latest crime-solving TV series. We've had, what, TV detectives. They use psychic abilities. Others use mathematics, even one whose phobias helped him find a killer. And now, the newest in nerdy detectives - remember Will from "Will and Grace," the actor Eric McCormack? He's back, but he's changed careers. Instead of a lawyer, he's now a neuroscientist in the new TNT series, "Perception."

Daniel Pierce, his character, teaches at an Ivy League school. He lectures students about brain structure, functional MRIs. But in between classes, the professor helps the FBI solve crimes. And because every TV hero these days needs a flaw, right, he's also a paranoid schizophrenic. Think "House" meets "Monk," meets "A Beautiful Mind," you'll get an idea of what this series is like.

Joining me now to talk more about the show is Ken Biller, the show's creator and executive producer. He joins us from our studios of NPR West. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Hi. How are you?

KEN BILLER: I'm very well. Your last two guests had such suave accents.


BILLER: You know, I'm somewhat deficient, but I'll try to do my best.

FLATOW: You know, as I mentioned at the beginning, that sounds like something that - if we had interviewed a neuroscientist, he would have said. And in some series that I'm thinking like, you know, in "Numbers," the producers went out their way to teach us something. Are you doing that in this series also?

BILLER: Well, I mean, mostly we're setting out to entertain you. We hope that you tune in to the show, and you really enjoy and get absorbed in the story and the characters and playing along to solve a mystery. And so, of course, that's the first goal. But, you know, I've always been - I'm sort of an armchair scientist, meaning I know absolutely nothing about science, but I'm fascinated by it. I listen to your show. I read some Popular Science.

And so in terms of preparing for the show and writing the show, I need to educate myself because if I'm writing a character who's a lot smarter than I am - and Daniel Pierce is a lot smarter than I am - I have to be able to fake it. And that means I have to educate myself a little bit about the science in the show, and I want it to feel real and interesting. And I think audiences enjoy that. So I think a byproduct of that is that, sure, if they're watching the show and they're interested in the subject matter, they might get a little education, learn something they didn't know about the brain or some other aspect of psychiatry or psychology.

FLATOW: Talking with Ken Biller, co-creator and executive producer of the program. Do you think science is hot on TV now?

BILLER: Yeah, I do. I mean, you know, "The Big Bang Theory," which is, of course, a much different show than my show, it's a situation comedy, but it's a terrific show. You know, it's about a whole bunch of scientists. And I think, you know, nerds are hip now. I think people - it's become - when I was a kid, it was completely uncool to be interested in any of this stuff, but I think that that's really changed. And I do think that there is more science on TV than there used to be, and I think that's pretty cool.

FLATOW: People like to get in on the inside about certain things. So tell us a bit about the show - it's only been on a couple of weeks - for people who haven't seen it.

BILLER: Yeah. So "Perception," it's on Monday nights at nine - excuse me - Monday nights at 10 p.m. on TNT. And it stars Eric McCormack, and Eric McCormack plays a character called Daniel Pierce, who is a brilliant and eccentric professor of neuroscience at a fictitious but Ivy League-esque, as you described, university in Chicago. And he is an MD and PhD, and he is an expert in the brain and strange human behavior, neurological and psychiatric phenomena, and he has written a number of books on the subject.

And he has a former student named Kate Moretti, who's played by Rachael Leigh Cook. And when she comes upon a case that involves - that she thinks may involve some strange or unexplainable behavior on the part of, say, either a victim or a witness or maybe a suspect in a crime, she comes to her old professor and asks him to bring his expertise to bare on the case in various ways.

And as you mentioned, the gag of the show which is revealed in the pilot episode is that while Pearce's brain is his greatest strength and his greatest asset, it's also his Achilles' heel because he is, in fact, a paranoid schizophrenic, and he suffers from many of the symptoms that schizophrenics do, including visual and auditory hallucinations. And these hallucinations and delusions often make his life very, very difficult. But we discover in the course of the series that sometimes these hallucinations and delusions will be giving him insights into things that his conscious mind can't quite make sense of and help him ultimately solve these crimes.

FLATOW: It sounds like a scientist Oliver Sacks might be a ripe source for the material.

BILLER: Absolutely. Yeah, Oliver Sacks was a big, big inspiration for the series. I had a - you mentioned I'm a co-creator. I have a co-creator in the show, a guy named Mike Sussman, who wrote the script with me and is also a writer/producer on the series. And he and I are both big Oliver Sacks fans, and we've done - read all of Oliver Sacks' books over the years. And I always thought it would be really interesting to find a way to take that popular science and work it into a television series. And when I hit upon this idea, it seemed a good way to do it. So there were a number of inspirations for the show, and, you know, we did a lot of reading and a lot of research and read a lot of neuroscience. But certainly, Oliver Sacks is a big inspiration.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Ken Biller, co-creator and executive producer of "Perception," on TNT, which has got some interesting themes to it. How true must you stay to it? Do you have technical consultants who make sure that you get it all right?

BILLER: Yeah. We have a really brilliant technical consultant who you might have heard of. He's a doctor, David Eagleman, who teaches at Baylor College of Medicine, and he's a really cutting-edge neuroscientist. And he published a book last year called "Incognito," which was on the bestseller list for a while, and he's a really fascinating guy. And so he vets the scripts. So we will send him various drafts of scripts, and he'll mark them up if we're getting science wrong or terminology wrong.

And then we also - we'll call him and say, hey, we have an idea about a story and, you know, we might pick his brain, no pun intended, about, you know, what symptoms might be of particular disorders, or we might be - or we might have a certain kind of behavior that we would want a character to engage in, and so we might ask him, hey, David, is there a condition that you're aware of or a neurological phenomenon that you're aware of that might produce this kind of behavior? So obviously, we're - we will sometimes take some liberties because we're, first and foremost, entertainment. We're trying to tell a story in an hour. But we do feel a responsibility to try to get the science correct.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, to Randy(ph) in Elkhart, Indiana. Hi, Randy.

RANDY: Hi. I was just wondering whether you have any writers that were actually paranoid schizophrenics.

BILLER: No, we don't. Although in preparation for the series, Eric McCormack and myself, we certainly - we did a lot of, obviously, reading about the condition, and we spoke to people who were struggling with this condition. And so we've tried to be sensitive to it and take care to depict it in a way that's responsible.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. It seems like almost TV hero or a lead character has to have some sort of flaw. "Monk," "Homeland," these characters are also struggling with some mental health problems.

BILLER: Yeah, I think that's interesting. I mean, I think that, you know, I think this is a long tradition not just in television but going back to popular literature, there are various interpretations of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, about whether or not they wouldn't have called it that then, but, you know, was Sherlock Holmes' a character who, maybe, suffered from Asperger's and some of his behaviors seemed to, you know, might point him in that direction. I mean, I think it's something that writers have always been interested in, which is exploring the flaws of characters.

Characters who are perfect and don't have problems or issues are, of course, not as interesting, but I do think it's interesting that it - and I think it's a good thing that it's become much less taboo in our society to talk about and depict mental illness and disorders. And I think that so many Americans either personally struggle with these issues or have a family or friends who do that it's not a taboo anymore. And I really applaud TNT for, you know, letting us put this show on the air because we definitely deal with some - the show is a lot of fun. I don't want to make it sound like it's not, but we definitely deal with some serious issues on the show.

FLATOW: Yeah. I think, you know, films like "A Beautiful Mind" certainly broke the mold on - or opened the door might be a more accurate way of putting it...

BILLER: Unquestionably, yeah. It's a fantastic film and clearly, another inspiration for this series, as well as the book that inspired that film.

FLATOW: How have the ratings been so far?

BILLER: The ratings have been fantastic. We premiered on our first week, we had over 6 million viewers. We were the number three show on all of cable...


BILLER: ...in our first airing. And our second, we actually went up in some of the demographics, 18 to 49 and 25 to 54, which are the, you know, the big demographics that the networks are trying to hit. So far so good. It's doing extremely well. There seems to be a lot of interest. I think there's a lot of interest in Eric McCormack. I think he has a lot of goodwill, no pun intended again, from the audience, and he's really terrific in the show.

FLATOW: Yeah, he does a great job. He does great job.

BILLER: Yeah, absolutely.

FLATOW: And the theme is terrific and good luck with - to you, Ken. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

BILLER: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me on. It's been a pleasure. I'm a fan of your show.

Maybe we - well, maybe we can get him as a guest, in character, on our show.

I'm sure Eric would love to come on your show.


BILLER: He's handsomer than I am, but that doesn't help on radio but...

FLATOW: That makes - yes, I have a face for radio too. Thank you.


BILLER: Thanks very much.

FLATOW: Ken Biller is co-creator and executive producer of the TNT series, "Perception." Just a reminder before we go to SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club. We're meeting again on August 10, a few weeks from now. Our next pick is "Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety" by Daniel Smith. So get the book, get reading and check the book club section of our website, @sciencefriday.com for the book. I'll repeat it again, "Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety" by Daniel Smith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.