You can’t really be blamed for ignoring Person of Interest, to be fair.
CBS has a reputation—a stink, really. While other networks were courting hip, buzzy, geek-friendly dramas, CBS anchored its lineup around reliable stalwarts like CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, and all the spinoff shows they inspired. It worked for them: in 2011, CBS was King of the Broadcast TV Mountain, maintaining its status as the most-watched network while all its competitors started feeling the squeeze of time-shifted viewing and diminishing returns. And it got there by staying faithful to traditional audiences that wanted nothing more than to watch a solid cast of characters bounce off each other and solve mysteries.
So one can be forgiven for thinking that Person of Interest, for all the sci-fi promise it held in the concept of a machine that could predict crime, was going to be the latest entry in that long tradition of pleasant mediocrity. Never mind that it had J.J. Abrams’ name on it. Never mind that it was coming from Jonathan Nolan, the Tony to Christopher’s Ridley, hot off the fan-fervor over The Dark Knight. This was coming from the network whose majority of viewers apparently find this to be acceptable computer science. No way could this possibly work for the Internet crowd.
Five years later, Person of Interest is in the midst of its long-delayed 5th and final season of 13 episodes, which CBS plans to burn through in 7 weeks. It’s an ignominious end for what was once one of the most popular shows on the network. A victim of dwindling ratings, you can argue, but also a victim of a network that wanted to produce more of its shows in-house.
The tragedy of it, however, is that Person of Interest is not only one of the best shows that CBS had to offer, but is also one of the best genre shows on the air, period. Yet despite a healthy fanbase on Reddit and io9, it still somehow feels overlooked by the geek crowd. You can blame the stigma of CBS, but it certainly didn’t help that Warner Bros. Television (which produced the show) made it impossible to catch up legally. The series wasn’t for sale on any digital platforms until the third season; it only just landed on Netflix this past September, and even then it was only the first three seasons. The fourth season was supposed to go up a few weeks later, but for reasons which still aren’t quite clear, the release was pushed back indefinitely, finally going up at the end of December.
So no, you can’t really be blamed. But all’s well that ends mostly well. The series to date is on Netflix, so it’s a good time for a deep primer on how this CBS procedural turned out to be a phenomenal sci-fi series.
That is, at least, once it got going.
“You Are Being Watched.”
Person of Interest posits that there exists a machine, wired into every surveillance camera and cell network in the world. The government uses this machine to predict and stop terrorist attacks, but it has a flaw: instead of just identifying possible mass casualty events, it sees every potential violent crime. Harold Finch (Michael Emerson, Lost), the inventor of The Machine, is forced to filter the crimes The Machine sees into “relevant” and “irrelevant” lists. The “irrelevant” list is supposed to be dumped at the end of each day, but shortly before surrendering access, a backdoor is built into the machine that sends the list to Finch instead. He plans to save as many as he can, and to help with this, he seeks the help of John Reese (Jim Caviezel), an ex-CIA assassin with a penchant for less-lethal leg wounds. Reese lost his own love to a violent crime and fell into a bottle shortly after. Some would say he needs help; Finch thinks that all Reese needs is a mission.
The sci-fi trappings of Person of Interest hide a classic setup: shades of The Equalizer and The A-Team in its objective to protect instead of avenge, and a classic buddy setup in the relationship of opposites at the core of the show. It’s easy to see how this was supposed to play to a traditional audience, and for a while that’s exactly what it did.
One of the major barriers of entry to this show is how bogged down the early episodes are with expository dialogue. For whatever reason—executive insistence, writer’s error—the opening hours are determined to have its characters walk the audience through every last detail of the story for the benefit of those who aren’t fully checked in. This dialogue reads clunky for everyone, but it hurts Jim Caviezel the most.
Caviezel plays John Reese as a true burnout. When we meet him, he’s gone full hobo, dressed in ratty clothes and a scraggly beard, hitting the whiskey like it owed him money, riding a subway to no place good. His body language is simple and efficient, his line delivery empty and droll. The man is utterly checked out, even in situations that provoke emotion.
It’s a high wire act, one that could easily read to people as an actor who’s here for craft services and the regular paycheck. When Caviezel gets his gait, it ends up being a fascinating performance, unlike any lead on TV right now. When he’s still getting a feel for the character, however, and he’s asked to loop in dialogue explaining things that are already visually communicated, he doesn’t do the show any favors.
“Help me make a good decision.”
Little things might pique your curiosity, though. Maybe you’re a fan of Michael Emerson or Taraji P. Henson (who plays Detective Joss Carter, a sort of Javert role in the early episodes). Maybe there are a few action beats in the pilot—particularly the scene where Reese coolly demonstrates why you shouldn’t aim your pistol sideways—that get your attention. Maybe you didn’t expect to hear songs by Massive Attack and Handsome Boy Modeling School on a show that airs on such an unhip network. (Jonathan Nolan and co-showrunner Greg Plageman pick the music themselves, and they have very, very good taste.) These little things are hopefully what carries you to episode 4. (I’m going to straight up spoil it here, but you should feel free to watch it for yourself before continuing. I’ve told you most of what you need to know to understand it; you’ll be able to pick up the rest along the way.)
A key part of the show’s central conceit is that Finch programmed The Machine to only spit out social security numbers. It’s a closed-box system; nobody can access the actual data that The Machine is using to evaluate threats. Of course, with a social security number, Finch can easily get an identity, but the hard part is figuring out whether that person will be a victim or a perpetrator. 90% of the time, they have it figured out within the first act, but that just allows the production to punch viewers in the gut with the other 10%.
So for the first three episodes we get standard procedural stories: Clear good guys, clear bad guys, solid gunfights, clean resolutions, pieces of the myth arc (Finch’s mysterious partner, the crime lord working in the shadows) set up in the background. The tradition continues into “Cura Te Ipsum,” which is credited to Denise Thé (she previously worked for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). Reese and Finch get the number of Megan Tillman (Linda Cardellini), a talented young doctor whom they think is being stalked by serial rapist Andrew Benton…right up to the moment Reese catches Tillman casing Benton’s apartment from a nearby rooftop.
It turns out one of Benton’s earlier victims was Tillman’s sister, who committed suicide a year after the assault was swept under the rug. After running into Benton by chance, Megan started baiting him. Her plan is to knock him out, drag him to a vacation home in Montauk rented under a false name, and throw him into a sodium hydroxide grave. Megan has planned this out to the last detail, and Reese’s dubious past teaches him two things: She will absolutely get away with it, and it’s going to haunt her for the rest of her life.
The B-plot has a surfeit of action, but aside from that, but that aside, this episode is relatively quiet, reflective, and philosophical in nature. There’s no sudden turnaround where Megan is overpowered and Reese has to come to her rescue. The confrontation it’s building toward is an emotional sit-down at a road stop diner, between a man who has made too many dark decisions in his life and a woman on the verge of making her first. While not strictly experimental, nothing about this feels like standard operating procedure for any genre show, let alone one on reliable old CBS.
And just because this episode wasn’t interesting enough, after Reese convinces Tillman to turn the rapist over to him, this happens:
Yep, that’s a Lady or the Tiger ending on a network TV series. Andrew Benton is never mentioned again. Not only does an ending like this show off, let’s be frank, a set of brass-plated balls, it also makes a lot of thematic sense: the entire hour was about the ways our morality shifts in the face of perceived evil. By refusing to commit to a clear resolution, it forces you to confront your own morality to come up with your own answers. In doing so, you have to carefully consider the character of John Reese. Is he a good man because he has the capacity to recognize evil and stop someone else from crossing that line? Is he a bad man because he is unmoved by the tears of the defenseless human being he’s fully prepared to kill?
You also have to consider the context of the series itself. If you’re predisposed to hot takes, you may take one look at the show’s abstract and wonder if it ultimately promotes the values of a surveillance state. “Now that you’ve given up your privacy, we might be able to have people like these guys watch your back!” “Cura Te Ipsum,” however, begins to subtly refute that notion by suggesting just how morally troubled our protagonists may be. As the first season moves forward, characters and plot elements are introduced that call the morality and the true nature of The Machine into question.
But while all that information gets filled in, we start to notice that The Machine, whether it is a net positive or negative to the world, is having a profound effect on our characters.
Our look at Person of Interest continues tomorrow.
Chuck Winters is a film school graduate who never learned how to bitterly hate half of everything he watches. He lives in noted cultural hotspot Suburban Long Island, where he is working on his first novel.