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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Person Of Interest turns conspiracy theory into art

Illustration for article titled Person Of Interest turns conspiracy theory into art
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When Person Of Interest debuted in 2011, the show offered a high concept in the drabbest of clothing. The premise was cutting-edge science fiction, tailor-made for TV: Every week, an advanced computer system with access to massive quantities of covert surveillance data would provide the heroes with the social security number of a potential victim or perpetrator. Those heroes would then track down the person attached to the number, assess the situation, and sort things out as best they could. It was a story engine that harkened back to classic sci-fi/adventure series like Quantum Leap and others, with enough of a modern twist to make it fresh. Add the presence of Michael Emerson as the mysterious, troubled, but fundamentally decent Mr. Finch, and the project looked like a sure bet.

Yet the series struggled in the early going, due to what seemed like an excessive commitment on the part of the writers to keep events rooted in a faux-realistic cop drama. It didn’t help that Emerson’s co-lead, Jim Caviezel, playing the gravel-voiced, stone-faced Mr. Reese, made even Jack Bauer look funny. In its initial run, Person Of Interest stuck to predictable case-of-the-week structures, underplaying the ambiguity of its premise and offering the same tired mysteries that procedurals have been churning out for decades.

But as the first season developed, the world started to expand. Finch’s backstory revealed a greater depth and complexity than originally realized; Reese developed an appealingly dry sense of humor; and characters like the no-nonsense cop Detective Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson), the once-corrupt Detective Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman), and the brilliant, sociopathic programmer Root (Amy Acker) become integral parts of the show’s world.

Improved characterization and a larger ensemble are to be expected of any series that lasts past its first season, though. What brought Person Of Interest from okay to reliably good (and occasionally great) is its commitment to digging into its core concept without violating the sense of near-reality established in the early going. An increased level of serialization found Finch and Reese facing off against a wide variety of threats—and nearly all of those threats, from a brilliant vengeance-driven mobster to layer-upon-layer of corrupt government and city officials, revolved around the idea of control. With his magical number-granting machine, Finch had designed a system that spied on citizens without their consent, ostensibly for their own good. But power, as ever, comes with responsibility; at their best, the show’s writers found ways to investigate just what that responsibility should mean. Impressively, in a television landscape littered with violent cynicism and shock for shock’s sake, the show turned towards optimism. Not an easy optimism, or an unearned one, but a clear sense that it was still possible to be a good person even in the face of alienating technology and despair.

The first half of the third season has the show firing on all cylinders, with a full ensemble of conflicted heroes (now joined by Sarah Shahi’s Samantha Shaw, an ice-cold operative turned freelance do-gooder) facing off against the villainous group called HR. Case-of-the-week stories still dominated, but the plots grew more ambitiously twisty. The deft mixture of standalone and long-arc plotting made for a run leading into the best episode yet, “The Devil’s Share,” which had the team hunting down a villain who killed one of their own. It’s a storyline that allowed for the typically excellent action sequences (quite possibly the best on television right now, and certainly the best on CBS) to shine while still finding room for a moving, sincere take on grief—how a death can be cause for inspiration, as much as mourning. In particular, Fusco, who began as a sad-sack joke, a low-level thug scared straight by Reese’s glowering threats, turned into arguably the main thesis of the entire show: that redemption and idealism remain possible even in a world rife with corruption. 

What holds this together—the philosophy, the camaraderie, the shooting—is the way the writers continually refuse to take the show’s core concepts at face value. The machine feeding Finch numbers could have been a rarely discussed MacGuffin; instead, it’s become the fulcrum of the entire series, a mysterious intelligence with plans uncomfortably beyond the understanding of its creator. Between the slow reformation of Root from murderous evil genius to badass acolyte, and the computer’s own understanding of its core mission, the concurrent themes of protection, identity, and heroism underlay every scene. Each week, Mr. Finch explains to the viewer: “You are being watched.” And each week, Finch and the others do their best to earn the privilege of their perspective, while others seek to exploit it. A smart show that keeps getting smarter, Person Of Interest evolved from a procedural with a twist into something entirely itself: a well-paced, tightly constructed sci-fi thriller that continually questions its assumptions.


Created by: Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Chapman, Michael Emerson, Sarah Shahi, Amy Acker
Airs: Tuesdays, 10 p.m. Eastern, on CBS
Format: Hour-long science-fiction thriller
Entire series watched for review