J.J. Abrams is the king of producing entertaining pilot episodes. From the incredibly awesome like Fringe to the good but flawed Alias to the hilariously terrible like Lost, he knows how to put together a first episode. Abrams, however, as a hands-off producer, isn’t the driving force behind this series. That title belongs to Jonathan Nolan, brother of famous film director Christopher Nolan. Jonathan is no slouch in the writing department. He wrote a short story which became the film Memento, and he was co-writer on The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Of course, when I started Person of Interest, I didn’t know any of this, I just started it, expecting another shitty, by the numbers cop procedural.
Surprisingly, this series offers much more than that. Let’s start with the bad stuff. Yes, the show has a case-of-the-week format. Yes, there are a lot of filler episodes. And yes, it airs on network TV which is usually not a good thing. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the good stuff.
First, the premise is great. A computer genius named Harold Finch (played by Michael Emerson) created “The Machine” for the U.S. government in the paranoia following 9/11. The Machine is an omnipresent monitoring device the government uses to eavesdrop on everyone via security cameras, email, telephones, GPS, etc. If it finds what it perceives to be a terrorist threat, it passes that information to the government. If some piece of information is considered irrelevant, it ignores it. Finch realized that the irrelevant stuff often led to crimes and/or murders that he had no way of stopping. He eventually teams up with a disavowed CIA agent named John Reese (played by Jim Caviezel) and the two of them try to stop the “irrelevant” crimes.
Second, the show kicks ass. Solving crimes doesn’t involve a bunch of CSI-style bullshit lab work. No, it typically features Reese following bad guys and then confronting bad guys. In order to solve crimes, he usually commits way more crimes including armed robbery, arson, kidnapping, assault, and murder. Of course, he is doing all this stuff to bad guys, but it is fun to watch him deal vigilante justice and cause way more destruction and mayhem than if he had just ignored the irrelevant crime in the first place. Anytime Reese throws down with someone, the show is plenty exciting.
Third, the writing is great. Despite having a case-of-the-week format, there are several story threads that run continuously throughout the episodes. Every character has a compelling back story, which is teased to the audience through flashbacks throughout the season. By the end of the season you know more about Reese, Finch, The Machine, and the two main antagonists, but you certainly don’t know everything. There are plenty of mysteries left to be unraveled. The show can also be surprising, as when Reese and Finch set out to stop a crime, they don’t know if the person The Machine has given them is going to be the perpetrator or the victim. A couple of times, the person they are protecting turns out to be the bad guy. It keeps the show more fresh and varied, and offers up a good deal of entertainment.
The acting is kind of a mixed bag. Caviezel plays his character as a stoic, monotone warrior who would rather kick your ass than mince words. At first this seems to be a drawback, but as the character becomes more fleshed out, you get a sense of why he became that way, and it ultimately works in his favor. Emerson is consistently good as the nerdy and paranoid Finch, and manages to be dramatic and comedic in all the right places. Kevin Chapman, who plays a crooked cop (Fusco), is also consistently good. Even guest stars like Enrico Colantoni (Elias) can bring in pretty great performances. The major weak link in the acting is Taraji Henson (Carter), who plays a sassy cop who is hot on Reese’s trail. The material is beyond her capabilities, and she is completely unbelievable as a police detective. Any time she’s on-screen with someone else, she’s upstaged. She doesn’t have the acting chops to successfully pull off this role. I’ve never cared for her. She was annoying on Boston Legal, and she’s just as annoying here.
My biggest complaint of TV in general is that seasons are too long. With a 22 episode order, and maybe 11-12 episodes worth of ideas, the writers are stuck shoe-horning in 9 or 10 shitty episodes every year. If the networks followed cable’s example, and did 13 episode seasons, the writing of all their series would be much better. With Person of Interest, it becomes obvious which episodes are meant to move the story along and which are written as afterthoughts because they needed to fill an order for a specific number of episodes. The filler episodes are generally weak, and easily skippable. The important episodes, though, are a blast, totally engrossing, and definitely worth watching.
Sure, Person of Interest isn’t revolutionary. It’s not meant to be. But it is a step above the typical procedural dreck that plagues network TV. If you are in the mood for something a little different, with a cool premise, fun action, and good writing, then you should check this one out.