Zack Handlen, who was covering Persons Of Interest on a weekly basis when the show premiered last fall, bailed on it back in early November, and if I'd been in his shoes, I'd have probably done the same. Up to that point, the show had been spinning its wheels, “interesting” premise, post-9/11 atmosphere, and all. I think it's been steadily growing more interesting, though, and the seeds of its improvement were sewn in the last episode that Zack reviewed, “Witness,” which introduced Enrico Colantoni, an actor who just about sole copyright on his brand of schlubby dignity, as Elias, inspiring schoolteacher turned New York crime boss and the unlikely new king of the city. Colantoni hasn't reappeared for any significant amount of time until tonight's episode, but the revelation that he wasn't an innocent target but a soft-spoken shark was the first really effective twist the series had pulled off, and the best use it had made of it's “we don't know if this person is a potential menace or a potential victim, but we know that something's going on around him” gimmick.
Since then, Person Of Interest has made more of an effort to drop more than vague hints about it heroes, the paranoid Finch (Michael Emerson) and the bland Terminator Reese (Jim Caviezel, who still delivers his lines in a hoarse, insinuating whisper that Batman would think is a bit much), but it's done a better job of raising the stakes by fleshing out the growing cast of characters who are caught up in Finch and Reese's orbit. Taraji P. Henson is quietly terrific as Carter, the NYPD detective who was originally positioned as the Fox Mulder on the trail of Caviezel's unidentified ass-whupping object, and has since shifted into the role of uneasy accomplice. She's become the show's true audience surrogate, admiring Reese and Finch's results while expressing the moral qualms that they have no time to entertain.
It's a potentially thankless job, but Henson handles it so gracefully that I can't remember every being disappointed when the show cut away from something exciting, or at least noisy, going on to a scene of Carter sitting at her desk, looking troubled. And Kevin Chapman, he of the immobile concave face, has grown on me as Fusco, the crooked cop who Reese drafted to serve as his eyes and ears inside the police department, after foiling Fusco's attempt to kill him and laying waste to most of his associates for good measure. In the early episodes, Fusco seemed to be having trouble letting go of the idea that, without openly revolting against his new masters, he might yet be able to somehow maneuver Reese into getting himself killed.
This was a tiresome business, but in the last several episodes. Fusco was allowed to begin to feel good about being one of the good guys again, even saving a kid's life by making a spectacular dive between him and a would-be assassin and bravely taking a bullet in the ass. Maybe just by remaining a mean prick on the surface, Chapman has been able to pull off Fusco's soul change with a minimum of sentimentality, and when Reese informed him that he would be required to once again pretend to be dirty so that he didn't lose the lines of communication that made him valuable to out heroes, Fusco's indignation at having to keep his heroism a secret felt earned. It was actually kind of touching. (It added to the poignant quality that Fusco already had, on account of Reese and Finch's decision to not let him or Carter, who are partnered together at work, know that they're both secretly working for them. Somehow, you can't help thinking that, if they found out, Carter would roll her eyes at that level of paranoid game-playing, whereas Fusco would be crushed.)
The show is never going to be about anything but Reese and Finch and their two-man salvage operation on a city that looks clean and orderly but, a few inches down, is as chaotically lawless as the '70s New York of Kojak and Barney Miller. Carter and Fusco aren't going to wrest center stage from the designated leads, the way Fonzie wrested it from the Cunningham family and Alex P. Keaton wrested it from his parents. But because Finch is such a marginal, quirky character (albeit exactly the kind of character that Michael Emerson was put on Earth to do miracles with) and Reese such a flat, unstoppable wrecking ball, the degree of interest the leads inspire depends largely on who they have to react to, and who's there to react to them.
In one scene in tonight's episode. Reese goes to a bar and assaults a man who has some information he wants. The man's friends move as if they're about to come to his aid, and Reese smiles slightly, the way Billy Jack used to whenever a dozen guys ganged up on him, and he was amused at how unfairly the odds were stacked in his favor. Instead of showing us the fight, the action cuts to what Carter and Fusco are doing, and when it returns to the bar, Reese has resumed his conversation with the man he came to see, and there are unconscious bodes strewn all over the floor. It hasn't taken Person Of Interest long to go from setting up scenes designed to show how tough and resourceful Reese can be in getting out of a jam to simply treating his indomitability as a joke, because after a few demonstrations of his epic-sized Teflon bad-assery, there's not much else you can do with it. He's at his most appealing here in his scenes with Colantoni. Whenever they're together, he suddenly seems vulnerable, because this guy outsmarted him once, and you sense (and Reese seems to sense) that he could do it again, anytime, at a moment's notice and without a full night's sleep.
Of course, Reese isn't the brains of the outfit. That honor falls to Emerson's Finch, the little guy who, sitting in front of a computer screen in some unfurnished room, is the secret master of all he surveys, which is pretty much everything. When Finch is outside his comfort zone, he's like a tortoise without its shell, though the show has been taking him out from behind his desk and getting him mixed up in the action more and more, probably just because no director who's trying to keep an uneven script moving is going to want to waste a resource like Emerson. Tonight, as part of the show's brief to make Emerson seem appealingly vulnerable without resorting to having him physically pummeled to within an inch of his life just prior to every commercial break, Person Of Interest saddles him with a six-month-old baby.
The baby is the lucky bearer of this week's number, the one that identifies her as being somehow involved in something dangerous. Finch smuggles her out of a hospital, for her protection, because even though he doesn't know yet what the outlines of the threat are, he's pretty sure that a six-month-old baby isn't at the head of a criminal conspiracy. Luckily, when he gets her back to the Finchcave, he isn't greeted by Sayid and Hurley, explaining that they've journeyed through a portal in time so they can kill the baby, in order to prevent a dystopian future where shoes are worn on the head and hats on the feet, and hamburgers eat people. Instead, Finch and Reese use the baby as a prop in some low-comedy routines that edge their relationship chemistry several notches in the direction of Felix and Oscar. It's a testament to the actors' skill that they sell this stuff well enough that I didn't feel an overpowering urge to find a time portal I could jump into so I could go back and murder the writers in their cribs.
It takes only a few minutes of screen time, and a quick dip in what Finch calls “that swamp of indiscretion known as social media,” for our boys to conclude that the baby is the product of an affair between a murdered woman and the rich and powerful owner of a construction firm. She had been targeted for kidnapping so that she could end up, as Finch puts it, “somewhere where babies are plentiful and birth records are not.” It was actually one of the show's most straightforward cases ever, but since that would never do, it crashed, like a runaway shopping cart, into the evening's other plot line. This involves Mark Margolis, everybody's favorite croaking, cadaverous-faced character actor, as Elias' father, who is sprung from prison after agreeing to cooperate with the feds trying to bring down his son.
After Reese turns to Elias for help in rescuing the baby from the kidnappers, the two of them wind up becoming Elias' pawns as he goes about trying to capture his gabby dad. By the end, it had all gone swimmingly for the ruthless killer, who once again played our hero like a concertina. Considering that Reese also had to listen to a speech from Carter about how thoroughly he'd screwed everything up, about his only consolation was that he got to have one of those scenes where he just says, basically, screw this methodical detective work crap, and enters someone's home through the hole he's just made in a window and starts bouncing everyone off the walls, while the music turns into the closest thing to a Ministry tribute that you will ever hear on the soundtrack to a CBS crime procedural.
If Person Of Interest, deep in its gonads, can't resist scenes like this, its brain is driven to question the wisdom of giving in to the impulses behind them, though the conclusion to tonight's episode goes farther than ever before in undercutting Reese's heroism completely. The gist of Carter's closing remarks is that he's made a mess of things by clinging to his judge-jury-and-executioner act instead of stooping to work and play well with others, and she's right. The possibility exists that the show may fully blossom in the remaining weeks of its first season as it bravely examines the full, dark implications of vigilante justice. The possibility also exists that, if the baby ploy pays off in the ratings, they'll double down on cuteness and get Michael Emerson a puppy.
- "The trouble with children is, you never know how they're going to turn out." If that line wasn't a Lost in-joke when it was written, that's what it became as soon as Michael Emerson got to say it.