I’m not sure if we can put a date on when exactly “Post-9/11 Paranoia” became a genre unto itself, but CBS’ new drama Person of Interest is a conspiracy theorists’ dream come true. Created by Jonathan Nolan, little brother to Christopher and writer of the final two Dark Knight films, and executive produced by master of mystery J.J. Abrams, Person of Interest is an amalgamation – it’s Eagle Eye, Minority Report, and Batman mythos rolled into one complicated series. In less capable hands, that likely would have wound up a total disaster, but Nolan and Co. manage to salvage enough of value from the recycled themes they’re operating within to make Person of Interest warrant a second season, if not more.
The show centers around two figures with shadowy pasts: eccentric billionaire and computer genius Harold Finch (the excellent Michael Emerson) and ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel). After the World Trade Center attacks, Finch was approached by the United States government to build a machine (cleverly titled “The Machine”) to spy on, well, everyone. The Machine is surveillance on a massive scale – it sifts through any and all forms of digital communication: E-mails, cell phone conversations, satellites, security cameras, and so on to predict – and stop – acts of terrorism before they happen. Since most acts of violence are premeditated, and murderous intentions are (presumably) always spoken aloud or written down to someone, somewhere, The Machine’s job is to identify these threats and alert the proper authorities.
But because the government was only interested in acts of terrorism and not everyday crimes, Finch was forced to mark much of what he was seeing as “irrelevant”. Of course, that didn’t stop The Machine from picking up on the so-called smaller offenses, which haunted Finch so much that he built himself a way to access The Machine without anyone’s knowledge.
This back door needed to be small, so he only allowed himself nine digits – a social security number – and nothing else. Every day a new number comes out of The Machine, but there’s no way to tell if the number will turn out to be a victim or a perpetrator. Armed with this knowledge but with no way to stop the crimes he was seeing, Finch hires Reese, possibly the only person in New York City with a more enigmatic background than himself. Finch rescues Reese from a self-destructive lifestyle, tells him about The Machine, and the two men go into the vigilante business together.
One of the major drawbacks of modern network television series, particularly dramas, is that in trying to stretch a narrative out over 23 plus episodes per season, many episodes quickly become “filler” stories. These filler plotlines are largely inconsequential, and are occasionally interspersed with much better episodes that contain a major revelation or consequence that has a larger significance for the show as a whole. This is especially true in the first season of a show, when the writers and the show runner are acquainting themselves with the characters just as much as the audience is. The result is that you get a mostly mediocre and repetitive show with the occasional great moments.
Person of Interest is just such a show. At the outset, most of the mystery revolves around the victim/perpetrator question, which the writers enjoy exploiting to no end. To be honest, I lost track of how many times Reese starts to pull out his weapon because it appears that the person he’s following is about to be in trouble, only to discover that the person he’s following is the trouble, or vice versa. After a while, it gets old.
For the most part, though, the storylines are diverse enough to keep things interesting – even though it seems that The Machine is rarely concerned with people over the age of 30. I guess middle-age people just don’t have their lives threatened very often. The show could have used a few more surprises, like when The Machine spits out more than one person’s number, or when the otherwise austere Reese and Finch are sent to protect an infant. It’s these episodes that stand out among the rest, but they are, unfortunately, infrequent.
That’s not to say that patient viewers won’t be rewarded. Person of Interest is at its best when it begins to delve into the pasts of Finch and Reese, and even better in episodes involving a mafia don who slowly begins to become the crime fighter’s supervillain (Enrico Colantoni, clearly enjoying playing the bad guy). The rest of the time, there’s something oddly gratifying in watching Reese kick the crap out of pretty much everyone he meets, Jason Bourne-style, and walking around the streets of Manhattan with grenade launchers and sub-automatic machine guns with seeming impunity.
Still, it’s hard not to get the feeling that Jonathan Nolan, rather than reinventing the wheel, preferred to simply borrow ideas from his big bro, and even from himself. Reese and Finch begin working with a conflicted homicide detective, Agent Carter (Taraji P. Henson), who at first tries to arrest Reese but begins aiding him when she recognizes his freedom to operate outside the strictures of the law to which she is confined. Even the most casual Batman fan will recognize that dynamic. The show is even so bold as to contain an episode towards the very end of the season in which Finch refers to anyone who knows about The Machine as “infected with an idea.” One almost expected at that point for the camera to pan down to a top spinning endlessly on a table. It’s these maddeningly familiar metaphors that keep Person of Interest from being an otherwise innovative show.
There should be plenty of time to work out the kinks from Season One. Just like any show with Abrams’ name on it, there are mysteries within mysteries here just beginning to be unraveled, and it will undoubtedly take several years to fully unpack them all. That is of course provided that Person of Interest survives that long. I’m hoping that it does. It moves more quickly than Lost, and the Season One finalé is a cliffhanger on par with the best of them. Perhaps the show will be able to break free from its parroting of other, better projects, and find its own voice. Who knows – maybe it will even find a way to say something of interest about the age of surveillance we live in that we haven’t heard before.