Why Person of Interest is well worth your time

After a shaky start, Person of Interest has grown into one of the smartest, most compelling shows on TV. Here's why...

Funny things, spoilers. The very word carries a qualitative judgment – this is something that will spoil your enjoyment of the piece of art in question. And they’re ubiquitous; viewing habits are becoming ever more fractured, with some people still watching weekly live like it’s black and white times or something, some watching a season or so behind because of the US-UK lag, some binge-watching on Netflix, some downloading scripts and directing their own versions in their mind palaces, and so on, making spoilers ever more difficult to avoid as a result.

But while spoiler culture is thriving, with many forums and articles dedicated to the discussion thereof, there also seems to be a general consensus – insofar as there can be anything resembling a consensus on the Internet – that spoilers are A Bad Thing, and best avoided if you want to enjoy the fullest, richest entertainment experience, as the creators intended.

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Which makes Person Of Interest interesting (no pun intended), because if it hadn’t been for spoilers I probably would have given up on it after a few episodes. In fact, on a couple of occasions, spoilers actually increased my enjoyment of the show. Mind-blowing, eh?

I’m going to explain why I think that it’s worth watching, and why you should listen to your one weird friend who keeps telling you it’s the best sci-fi show on TV, instead of rolling your eyes and saying “shut up about that stupid CBS show, CBS makes NCIS and other boring shows that old people like” – but I’m going to need to deploy a few spoilers in the process. Feel free to just take my word that it’s awesome and stop reading now.

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You are being watched

John Reese, played by erstwhile Jesus Jim Caviezel, is an ex-CIA operative with a shady past. When we first meet him he’s down on his luck, ragged of dress, tangled of beard and stinking of booze, aimlessly wandering New York, but we quickly see that he has lost none of his capacity for brutal badassery as he effortlessly dismantles some thugs on a train. This brings him to the attention of NYPD detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson) and, more importantly, reclusive billionaire Harold Finch (Michael Emerson on superbly weird, wired form). Finch has a proposition for Reese – he wants them to go into the vigilante business together.

The show’s high concept is that Finch has access to information about ordinary – and, as far as the government is concerned, irrelevant – people who are going to be involved in violent crimes, either as victims or perpetrators. Specifically, he has their social security numbers, which come from an unknown source. That’s it. He doesn’t know what they’re going to do, or when they’re going to do it, which is where Reese comes in. While Finch offers tech support over the phone, Reese uses his particular set of skills to infiltrate people’s lives, either saving them or bringing them down via the tried and tested methods of illegal surveillance, shooting fools in the kneecaps or hurling them through windows.

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Defenestration is one of Person Of Interests signature moves, along with T-boning (aka driving a vehicle into the side of another vehicle at high speed), and is used so often that it eventually becomes a running joke. Why show Reese throwing ne’er-do-wells through windows when you can show him walking into a room, then cut to an exterior shot and watch said ne’er-do-wells come sailing into the street in a shower of glass? The show is somewhat po-faced at first, but when it starts to loosen up a bit and slyly poke fun at its own tropes in this way, it becomes a helluva lot more enjoyable.

At first, then, the show seems to be a high-tech vigilante spin on the case-of-the-week formula that we’ve seen time and time again. And if, like me, you’ve been weaned on arc-based television, and have little or no patience for cookie-cutter procedurals, it can be hard going early on. The first season in particular, while entertaining in its way, gets bogged down in weak feet-finding episodes, although things improve significantly going into the second, and it’s in the latter half of this season that the show really kicks into gear and starts to become brilliant, rather than watchable. Then the third season is pretty much wall-to-wall awesome, and at that point you’re either hooked or you’re not.

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“Hold on,” I hear you say. “I need to sit through nearly a season and a half before it gets really good? That’s like 30 episodes! That’s a decent chunk of my precious existence!” I’m not going to disagree. It’s quite a commitment (although the first three seasons are on Netflix, so you can blast your way through them over a weekend). And as I’ve stated, it’s probably not one I would have made without some foreknowledge of what was to come.

One of the issues, unfortunately, is the nature of US network television. With over twenty episodes in a season there’s necessarily going to be some filler alongside the serialised goodness, and while shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer are able to make non-arc episodes consistently compelling from the beginning, Person Of Interest takes its time finding its feet, and many of its early cases of the week are fairly bland, with clunky scripts.

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It also took me a while to get used to Jim Caviezel’s strange, slightly medicated performance; I’d never seen him in anything else, and at first his hushed delivery and general stiffness is quite off-putting. He settles into the role, though, finding a subtle twinkle of humor, and his interplay with Finch quickly becomes endearing. And you could argue that his odd delivery represents emotional numbness, a symptom of the PTSD with which he lives. Also, as with the defenestration, the show eventually starts to have some fun with his combination of awkwardness and lethal indefatigability –  it already skirts dangerously close to parody at times so it makes sense to lampoon it, although they do maintain the integrity of the character, a not inconsiderable balancing act.

Full disclosure – I have a weakness for calmly spoken individuals walking into rooms full of thugs and taking them all apart without breaking a sweat (some might call it adolescent male power fantasy, but I wouldn’t know, as even as an adolescent male I was incredibly sophisticated and well-adjusted). Basically, if anything’s going to get you through Person Of Interest’s weaker episodes, it’s the fun of this seemingly indestructible man mountain taking care of business with fists, guns and whatever else is to hand, and Michael Emerson rolling his eyes at yet another explosion of unnecessary ultraviolence.

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Welcome to the Machine

“Okay,” you say, “so there’s some good fighting. What about these spoilers, then? Why is this show worth my time?”

SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ONWARDS

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Fine, fine. The show is worth your time because eventually, after a lot of cryptic dancing around, we find out what it’s really all about – the birth of artificial intelligence. It transpires that the numbers come from a machine that Finch built following 9/11 to prevent terrorist attacks, a machine that has now gained self awareness – and that the government would love to get its hands on. Once this knowledge is in place, the show really takes off, exploring notions of free will, our reliance on technology and the implications of artificial intelligence, and asking very pertinent questions about surveillance, the right to privacy, morality and exactly how far we are willing to go to protect ourselves against terrorists and other “deviants”.

It’s a heady brew, telling street-level stories of white collar crime, corrupt cops and gang conflicts against the wider backdrop of a simmering AI war and its potential consequences for humanity, and once the show starts firing on all these epic cylinders (and seemingly bolting on new cylinders every other episode) there are jaw-on-the-floor moments to rival any water cooler television of the last few years. What creator Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher) and his co-conspirators have done, effectively, is smuggle a highly topical hard-SF show onto a network that generally wouldn’t touch such a thing with a bargepole, by dressing it up as your common or garden case-of-the-week procedural. It’s subversive on a metatextual level, even before you get to the subversive aspects of the show itself.

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The Acker Factor

Apart from the aforementioned Reese, Carter, and Finch, the show is full of memorable (and GIF-worthy) characters, including long-suffering crooked cop Fusco, crime boss Elias, slimy corporate Mephistopheles Greer, bulldog-faced agent Hersh, and compact Persian sociopath Shaw. But the show’s MVP, as far as I’m concerned, is Amy Acker – and herein lies the other big spoiler.

Acker turns out to be an unhinged genius hacker called Root, but her identity is only revealed in the first season finale – at first we think she’s just another case of the week, a damsel in distress. Obviously knowing her identity spoils that particular twist, but I actually found that it added an extra level of tension and excitement to the episode – I knew more than the other characters did, so I was waiting to see how the reveal would work. Plus, the knowledge that Acker would eventually play a badass super hacker with a penchant for duel-wielding was enough to get me through several duff early episodes because… well, do I really need to explain? Acker can do no wrong.

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Relevant

If I had to compare Person of Interest to another series, it would probably be Fringe, which also set up an interesting premise and some good characters and then proceeded to be stubbornly underwhelming for much of its first season, and even parts of its second, before exploding into unadulterated awesomess. Person of Interest, therefore, definitely deserves the mantle of Most Improved Show.

The fight scenes get steadily more inventive and bruising. The scripts get wittier – season four’s “If-Then-Else,” for example, is one of the ballsiest (and funniest) conceptual TV experiments I’ve seen this side of a Whedon or Harmon joint. The cast of characters expands, and their relationships deepen. The stakes get higher. The moral ambiguity gets squickier. The twists get more eye-popping-er. Amy Acker fires two guns at the same time while shamelessly flirting with a flustered Michael Emerson. And what you end up with is a complex, paranoid, gripping show in which a bunch of damaged, morally compromised people – barely heroes by any acceptable definition of the word – face down odds so humongous that I find it hard to believe that the forthcoming fifth season, thought to be the show’s last, will end happily.

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Oh, and their choice of found music is impeccable – the use of Radiohead in the season three finale makes for one of the most spine-chilling sequences I’ve ever seen on TV (the episode easily makes my top five finales of all time), while elsewhere artists as varied as Nina Simone, Portishead, Johnny Cash, and Pink Floyd are deployed expertly. It’s so easy to botch the use of songs in TV and film, or to use them as a shortcut to emotion or a patch to disguise an under-developed script, but Person of Interest does it flawlessly.

Your number’s up

So should you just skip the early, more forgettable episodes and go straight to the good stuff? You certainly could, but my advice would be to watch the whole thing, if you’re willing to invest the time, because while there is some tedium the show is also very smart and subtle with its character and story development. It plays the long game, dropping little moments here and there and introducing side characters and plot lines that often take over a season to pay off, and it would be a shame to miss out on all that. Good things to those who wait, and all that.

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And good the things are. After a rough start, Person of Interest has become one of the smartest, most compelling shows on TV, capturing the spirit of cyberpunk as well as anything I’ve seen outside of the movies, and asking searching questions about the modern surveillance state, our place in the world and what it will take to push our society forward into the next stage of its evolution.

Plus, copious defenestration. And Amy Acker. What’s not to like?

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Author Stefan Mohamed’s novel, Bitter Sixteen, is out now.

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