Pilot rapid-fire review: Person of Interest

The next couple weeks are going to be insane. There are so many new series debuting and unfortunately, there is only so much time in the day for me to write about television while balancing my “real” life. You know, the one I spend on Twitter. ANYWAY, I’m going to try to touch on each new series once it airs a pilot, but these posts probably won’t be too long or too in-depth unless they really need to be. And if certain things debut together, I’ll probably talk about them together.

Person of Interest makes me uncomfortable.

I don’t want to get into any sort of political ideology discussion, but CBS’ new Jonathan Nolan-penned series is kind of like Patriot Act pornography.* There’s a odd celebratory way that Person of Interest treats the way technology has been and will continue to be used to monitor and track everyone’s lives and choices in the post-9/11 world. There are surveillance cameras everywhere! Our phones can be tapped and turned into broadcasting devices within moments! GPS tracking is so easy these days! Spying on people is an effective way of accomplishing any sort of task! Oh my goodness this is so lovely!

Nolan clearly loves the Patriot Act. Do you think that he just has printed off copies of it in his house? Does it read it before bed every night? Much has been made about The Dark Knight as a post-9/11 film and surveillance plays a major part of that story as well. Nolan’s script there gives Batman something of a cop-out by the end of TDK and he doesn’t even seem to try to express the dangers of surveillance and control here. 

OK, that’s all hyperbolic, but only somewhat. And it doesn’t tell the entire story of Person of Interest, but it’s definitely the element of the pilot that left the most lasting impact on me. Telling a story about the changes in our world post-9/11, particularly in relationship to technology, surveillance and freedom, is an intriguing angle and one that actually interests me a great deal. This machine is a cool, mysterious story engine that could present all sorts of interesting premises and angles. The problem with Person of Interest‘s perspective on these changes and this relationship, at least in the pilot stage, is that it is way too one-sided and again, celebratory.

The story is powered by this mysterious machine that Michael Emerson’s Finch helped develop for the government after the 2001 attacks and although some of the details about the machine’s capabilities are purposefully not given, the general sense is that this machine is a good thing. The social security numbers(!) that it spurts out help Finch and his new buddy John Reese solve crimes and protect people. And after the machine gives them the initial information, Reese and Finch use all sorts of surveillance/investigative tactics, from street cameras to hacked cell phones to classic breaking and entering, to figure out what’s going on. In the pilot, Reese and Finch end up stopping the bad guys (and gal) and presumably move right on to the next set of social security numbers. Hooray!

Look, saving people using any means necessary is all well and good and as a CBS procedural, there’s not a whole lot of expectation that Person of Interest is going to engage in any major thematic concerns or dig deep into real criticisms of how the government, police and military work together to find information that may or may not be useful. This isn’t the first TV series or film to use surveillance and spy tactics to help people. It’s just that Interest directly engages with the squeamish nature of “how things are” in the 21st century and then doesn’t bother posing any relevant questions or consequences. The machine does its thing, Finch gets the data and people are saved; it is all presented as generally black and white and Finch and Reese are positioned as these vigilante heroes doing what needs to be done. Again, that’s absolutely fine, I just expected that the pilot would have a bit more complexity in regards to what the machine and all this technology means in a larger sense. It’s very possible that lack of concrete details about where the machine is and exactly how it works are actually related to this complexity and perhaps Interest wants to engage in a conversation with questions about freedom, technology, etc. in future episodes. I welcome this.

I especially welcome that complexity because Person of Interest is relatively solid otherwise. Jim Caviezel’s performance was overly stoic and cold, but he wasn’t as stone-faced as I expected. He’s either going to need to bring more energy in future episodes or the series needs to avoid giving the character terrible kiss-off “outlaw” one-liners because that combination doesn’t quite work. Emerson unfortunately had to give a boat-load of exposition in this pilot, yet he works with these slightly mysterious power-player characters better than anyone. The pilot looked very good, the short set-pieces were done well enough and both lead characters have backgrounds that I’m curious about. Separated from all the exposition and set-up this pilot had to do, Person of Interest will be a very solid series for CBS. I just think that it has the capability of being great if it stops to ask “Why?” a few times instead of just relying on Caviezel kicking a bunch of day-players’ asses each week while Emerson looks at a PC monitor from a dingy office/lab set. Here’s to hoping than Jonathan Nolan lets go of some of his obvious issues and hires a writing staff full of people who don’t love the Patriot Act quite as much as him.

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