Television

"This Is the Next World": The Stealth Futurism of 'Person of Interest'

Abigail Nussbaum

Beneath the procedural trappings, Person of Interest offers a nuanced portrayal of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human.

In the fall of 2011, CBS debuted a series that seemed, at first glance, like the quintessence of science-fiction-lite. In the pilot episode, a secretive billionaire named Harold Finch (Michael Emerson, riding high on his career-making turn as the manipulative villain Ben on Lost) recruits a down-on-his-luck former CIA agent, John Reese (Jim Caviezel) to rescue people whom Finch somehow knows to be at the center of evolving danger. When a suspicious Reese insists on a more concrete explanation, Finch reveals that he's a computer genius who, in the wake of 9/11, became obsessed with building a predictive artifical intelligence (AI) that would alert the authorities to acts of terror before they occurred. The resulting computer -- known as The Machine -- doesn't, however, distinguish between terror-related murders and the ordinary kind. Finch, haunted by the government's indifference to the latter list, which they designate "irrelevant", has decided to take matters into its own hands.

It's a supremely schlocky premise that’s reminiscent of any number of high-concept procedurals, all of which use their SF-nal McGuffin as little more than a jumping-off point for run-of-the-mill crime stories. Produced by J.J. Abrams -- then still most famous for TV series such as Alias, Fringe, and of course Lost, but starting to transition to movies with the success of his bubblegum version of Star Trek -- and created by Jonathan Nolan, one half of the writing team, with his brother Christopher, that had delivered some of the more successful genre films of the 2000s, including The Dark Knight, Person of Interest's behind the scenes credentials weren’t the type that would encourage a certain class of science fiction snob (in which group I unabashedly count myself) to expect great things.

Both Abrams and Nolan had made their careers off lightly glossing familiar -- although often very entertainingly made -- crime and spy stories with a thin veneer of science fiction tropes. Actual science fiction seemed to bore, and in some cases embarrass, them. In its early episodes in particular, Person of Interest's most obvious inspiration was Nolan's Batman movies, with their determinedly naturalistic approach to the tropes of the superhero genre. To the extent that The Machine played a role in the show's storytelling, it was to jumpstart its stories and provide the gimmick that lay at the heart of most of its early plots: the fact that Finch, whom The Machine provides only with a social security number, has no idea whether the individual in question is about to become the victim or the perpetrator of a crime.

And yet, completely unexpectedly, over the course of the next five years Person of Interest slowly became one of the most unusual and thought-provoking series on TV. More importantly, it became one of the most unabashedly SF-nal series on TV, one that delved into and explored the contours of a world in which a being such as The Machine exists, and the way that that existence irrevocably alters our society. By its end, Person of Interest was a show about futurism, about post-humanism, in a way that hardly any other work in its medium has achieved, much less attempted.

There's always been science fiction on TV, and at the same time, a lot of what bills itself as TV science fiction isn't "really" science fiction at all. This is to come off as snobbish again, so let's clarify: most science fiction on TV is adventure or crime storytelling that uses science fiction tropes -- anything from superpowers to outlandish weapons to outer space settings -- to enliven its plots and make them exciting and colorful. Very little TV SF tries to engage those tropes to discover how they change our definition of what it means to be human, and how they alter a society that becomes accustomed to them.

For a brief period around the end of the first decade of the 21st century, however, that changed. For most of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, science fiction on TV meant space opera: either Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-offs (Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise), or the various reactions to it (Babylon 5, Farscape, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica). In the last few years, science fiction on TV has meant the desperate (and, for the most part, unsuccessful) attempt to replicate the incredible success of costumed superhero movies on the small screen.

During the gap between these two eras, as TV creators struggled to find their next paradigm, we experienced a brief, and for the most part unheralded, flowering of a different kind of TV SF. Shows like Dollhouse (2009-2010), Fringe (2008-2013), The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009), Caprica (2009-2010), and of course Person of Interest combined naturalistic settings and appearance with a more in-depth engagement with their central McGuffins. Though extremely variable in terms of quality, what all these shows have in common is a willingness to explore the implications of such central SF tropes as time travel, alternate universes, virtual reality, personality transfer, and AI.

It's perhaps no coincidence that the two most successful of these shows -- Person of Interest and Fringe -- both came from J.J. Abrams's production house, and that they both take the same approach of easing their viewers into the deep end of the pool by initially presenting themselves as gimmicky procedurals. Fringe begins as a less-successful The X-Files clone, relying on gore and cheap shocks where the earlier show delivered impeccably structured and often soulful monster of the week stories. It's only in its second season that it begins to raise the subject of alternate universes, slowly building up to the revelation that our reality is at war with an alternate one, for reasons that are far more complex and morally fraught than its characters initially understand. Along the way, it delivers what is hands-down the most nuanced handling of 9/11 and its aftermath that American TV has been able to produce.

Person of Interest, similarly, spends most of its first season concerned either with cases of the week, or with the slow build-up of various crime and espionage stories. To help in his crimefighting and keep an eye on the authorities, Reese recruits corrupt cop Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman) to act as his spy and assistant. One of Fusco's tasks is to observe stalwart police detective Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson), who makes it her project to track down the vigilante known as The Man in the Suit (Nolan's low-key approach to superhero storytelling rearing its head).

These crime stories persist throughout the show's run, and most of them are well done, worth the price of admission in their own right: in the first season, Carter grows increasingly conflicted about her mission, while Fusco rediscovers his conscience and struggles to disentangle himself from the organization of corrupt cops to which he'd sworn allegiance; in the second season, Reese's presumed-dead CIA partner, Kara Stanton (Annie Parisse), returns to harass him, now working for a mysterious private entity; in the third season, an enraged Carter seeks revenge on Fusco's former allies, who murdered her lover and tarnished her reputation; through it all, we are repeatedly visited by Carl Elias (Enrico Colantoni), a mob boss who combines twinkly charm with utter ruthlessness, and who transitions from enemy to neutral figure to ally as he becomes aware of the greater game being played around him.

It's that greater game that's the show's business, as it makes clear in its first season finale. For most of the season, the show has intercut episodes with scenes of surveillance footage from the various CCTV cameras spread out through New York City. These, we're led to conclude, are the tools with which The Machine gathers information and reaches its conclusions about who’s about to commit crimes.

But in the season finale, with Finch having been abducted by the evil hacker known as Root (Amy Acker), we're suddenly shocked into the realization that these cameras don't just represent a tool; they’re the point of view of a character we hadn't even realized existed. Reese, having lost all sign of Finch, turns to one of these cameras to ask The Machine for help. We see him through the camera, which is to say through the Machine's eyes. It's the first time we've been allowed to realize that there is someone looking through those cameras -- an intelligence, albeit not a human one -- and that it's their story that we're watching.

For the rest of Person of Interest's run, one of its main concerns will be to teach us to see an intelligence that’s decidedly inhuman -- whose perspective and worldview are, in fact, completely alien to us -- as a person. Most film and TV series about AI have tended to obscure, or even ignore, the profound differences between how humans perceive the world, and how an artificial intelligence would -- think of the relatively late-in-the-game scene in Her in which the human protagonist realizes that the AI he'd thought of as his exclusive girlfriend is in loving, committed relationships with hundreds of other people; or the excised scene from the end of Ex Machina, in which we finally see the world through the female-identified robot's eyes, and discover that it is completely alien, devoid of color and beauty. Person of Interest embraces that alienness -- makes it, in fact, the crux of its story, when it insists that The Machine is so different from us that, to name a crucial example, ideas of good and evil may not even apply to it.

This is the argument repeatedly made by Finch, who from the second season onward emerges as the show's true protagonist (or perhaps its true human protagonist). Staunchly moral, and possessed of a firm belief in the sanctity of human life, he also insists that The Machine's power, combined with its fundamental alienness, make it an existential threat to humanity unless it's strictly controlled, which ultimately leads him to commit terrible abuses against a being that, as the show is at pains to convince us, is alive, sensitive, and capable of suffering.

Finch's story is eventually revealed as a modern retelling of Frankenstein, with Finch as the arrogant scientist who claims for himself the right and the power to create life, and ends up creating a monster. That monstrousness doesn't lie just in The Machine's nature, but in the fact that its existence irrevocably changes the world, and more importantly, in the fact that Finch, terrified of the implications of his creation, gave it to the government to use and abuse as they saw fit. (As in the novel, the fact that Finch subsumes the generative role of women is a crucial component of his crime; he repeatedly refers to The Machine as his child, but is also castigated for failing in his responsibility for it, like an abandoning parent.)

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