Person of Interest knows how to make an entrance.
A crew of pampered rich kids mess with a sleepy bum on the subway and receive a hell of an ass-kicking. The man who delivers said kicking is Reese (Jim Caviezel), a down-on-his-luck ex-CIA agent. Taken to a police station, he tells the enthusiastic Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson) exactly nothing. Then he’s bailed out and taken to see a mysterious man who identifies himself as Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson). Finch explains that he has the means to find out when major crimes are going to be committed days before they happen. What’s more, he wants Reese to help him get to the bottom of these crimes and stop them from happening. When Reese demurs, Finch persuades him: he reveals that he knows Reese’s history and makes a promise: “You left the government because they lied to you. I never will!”
And with that, Person of Interest jumps right into pilot episode territory. Finch sends Reese to investigate an assistant district attorney (Natalie Zea) with a near-spotless conviction record and apparently, about to get into trouble. “When is this going to happen?” asks Reese. “Could be a week, could be five minutes from now,” Finch replies. So Reese gets down to trying to figure out what’s up with the woman and how he can save her. With an assistant district attorney as the target, there are a lot of potential places for the episode to go, and the plot is sufficiently twisty to be entertaining. The show even has a nice callback to the teens from the subway, who come back into play when Reese needs to acquire firearms quickly.
All this plot doesn’t give Caviezel a chance to display much personality. Reese has a dead girlfriend and a soul-crushing sense of guilt that he wasn’t able to protect her. He speaks in a voice just above a whisper, when he speaks at all. Mostly, Person of Interest‘s first episode shows off his various abilities. He’s an expert marksman, he knows how to infiltrate a residence and track a person, and he’s willing to use deadly force to achieve his goals.
This action is very good, but the show only feels truly energized when Emerson is on the screen. He brings the same intensity to this role that he did to his career-making turn as Ben Linus on Lost. Finch tells Reese that he’s super-wealthy and that he designed a complex machine for the government in the wake of 9/11. He intended this machine to acquire and collate data to find terrorist activity, but found its matrix can track potential crimes on a smaller scale. And so Finch, in a bout of altruism after dealing with a loss of his own, has decided to use the machine to help people.
It’s a lot of exposition to deliver, but Emerson is effectively low-key doing it. With his piercing blue eyes and penetrating stare, always seems like he knows more than he lets on. It looks as though Finch is dedicated to righteous use of the machine, but one assumes his complicated past will come back to haunt him as the show progresses.
Person of Interest has some backstory of its own, with J.J. Abrams executive producing the first episode and Jonathan Nolan its creator. Nolan has never worked in television before, but his screenplays for his brother Christopher’s films, like Memento, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight, suggest he knows how complicate characters. Abrams is mostly known for his successful genre shows, but he has an equal number of television flops to his name at this point.
Network TV is always a negotiation. Since it’s airing on CBS, Person of Interest‘s procedural aspect is going to have to take center stage at least for a while, in an effort to attract the CSI viewers. From a storytelling standpoint, though, the real juice of the show is going to lie in its long-form arcs. It’s a delicate balance to maintain, and it will be interesting to see if Person of Interest is up to the challenge.