07 May 2020

Person Of Interest

One of my favorite television series is Person Of Interest. This is my pitch for watching it.

What it is

On the face of it, the show is just a pretty good Detective Procedural With A Twist. But it turns out to be playing a deeper game.

Our heroes are a Reclusive Nerdy Billionaire Hacker and a Haunted Former Military Badass. Together, this odd couple fight crime!

The hacker gets messages from a government computer system which taps into phones, security cameras, and so forth to predict terrorist attacks; it also predicts ordinary violent crimes in New York City, and our heroes use their combined talents to prevent those. The clever conceit of the show is that the predictions they get are incomplete: they don't know what the crime will be or when it will happen. All the machine tells them is the identity of a person who will be involved ... without informing our heroes whether that person will be the victim of the crime or the perpetrator. So each episode depicts our heroes detective-ing in a race against time to figure out what is going to happen and how they can stop it before it is too late and someone gets murderized, all while dodging police who think of these heroes who operate from the shadows as vigilantes.

This is a fun idea and it allows for some classic genre TV pleasures: twists as we turn out to have misjudged who the bad guys are or what they are up to, nicely choreographed fights as our Haunted Former Military Badass stops bad guys from bad-guy-ing, banter between our regular characters, colorful guest characters, et cetera.

This alone supports interesting themes. Our heroes use a powerful surveillance machine, and in the course of investigating they spy on people; this makes us uneasy in the audience, raising questions about the technologies which now pervade our lives. Our heroes piggyback off of government institutions, hide from them, and unearth examples of how those institutions are inadequate or corrupt.

Which leads us to the show's deeper game.

As it makes the turn from the first season to the second, Person Of Interest violates a law of genre TV. Instead of just accepting the conceit of the show, it looks straight at it, saying oh by the way, did you notice that this show is about a nearly omniscient superintelligent artificial intelligence? And so the show unfolds from a straightforward genre show into an increasingly smart and strange work of science fiction, until by the end of its fifth and final season it is one of the smartest, most subversive things ever put on broadcast television while also delivering great popcorn entertainment.

As the series proceeds, it becomes clear that — unlike too many convoluted TV shows these days — it had a plan all along. It will get under your skin and into your head. Watch enough and you will never stop wondering if maybe the Machine is listening. You may even start hoping that it is.

Watching the show

A few tips to help you get into it and get the most out of it.

  • The back half of Season One drags a little, making it tempting to skip ahead or drop out. Hold fast. That stretch lays some important track, and the doldrums will not get bad, nor will they last long. As the show wraps up the first season and makes the turn into the second season, it starts getting weirder and gutsier and better and really takes off.
  • Always watch the title sequence. The show wants Finch’s explanation of the show's story to sink in ... and the show will occasionally use the content of the titles to good advantage.
  • Actor Jim Caviezel’s gruff performance as Reese, our dapper vigilante badass, is so dryly comedic that you might miss at first that it is funny at all, so it is good to have permission up front to recognize the gag.
  • Actor Michael Emerson’s anxious performance as Finch, our nerd billionaire, is also an underplayed marvel. The only other performance I know which takes as good advantage of the long game of series television is Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad. Late in the final season he gets a monologue which shows that he and the writers had been keeping his powder dry this entire time until it was time to finally dial it all of the way up.
  • The show is in dialogue with The Wire; the crime drama aspects of PoI are often like a fantastical, melodramatic version of The Wire, and if you love The Wire you will enjoy PoI's little winks toward it, including Wire actors turning up. I count myself lucky to have watched The Wire first, but it is hardly necessary. (Check out my enthusiastic pitch for The Wire for more about it; I am among the chorus who think it is far and away the best TV series ever made, as well as an important window into the American condition.)
  • The show is also heavily influenced by a little-known 1970 science fiction movie Colossus: The Forbin Project, which is about a different super-intelligent AI. Forbin is a movie decades ahead of its time and worth tracking down for its own sake, and if you see it you will find its fingerprints all over PoI.
  • If you find that, like all right thinking people, you take a liking to the glamorous fixer Zoe Morgan, you might want to check out the film Inside Man, which is a terrific movie and features Jodie Foster in a role which obviously inspired Zoe.
  • A couple of important characters are introduced without much fanfare, and it is good to have the small spoiler to know to keep an eye on them:
    • Kevin Chapman as salty, dirty cop Lionel Fusco
    • Amy Acker, who is a miracle worker of an actor wherever she appears

At the time I write this, the complete series of Person Of Interest is streaming on Netflix. Binge like the wind, Gentle Reader, and drop me a line to let me know how you liked it.