Spotlight: Person of Interest

Television is changing.  With the advent of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, the way we watch our TV shows has shifted.  And now that these same streaming services have begun creating their own shows, the very format of a television show has changed as well.  The length of a television show season is usually around twenty-two episodes or thirteen episodes, depending on the network.  But with Netflix’s Stranger Things, we got a season that was only eight episodes long.  There’s more freedom now to create as short or as long a season as the creators need to or want to.  Shows on broadcast television networks, with their twenty-odd episodes in a season, are starting to feel outdated.

In a sense, you could consider Person of Interest to be a member of the “old guard”.  The show had its run on CBS, which meant that each season (with the exception of the fifth and final) was twenty-two to twenty-three episodes long.  Person of Interest is a procedural crime drama with a science-fiction flair and some spy thriller elements thrown in.  The premise of the show is as follows:

After the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, the United States government began looking into creating a system that would monitor the public at all times.  They wanted a system that could alert them of any potential terrorist attacks before they happen, giving them a chance to stop them.  Their system is created by a man named Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), but it comes with an unexpected side effect.  The machine sees not just potential terrorist acts, but crimes of an everyday nature as well, crimes involving ordinary men and women.  To deal with this, the machine is programmed to split them into two categories: relevant and irrelevant.

When the show opens in 2011, Finch approaches ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) and offers him a job: help him track down the irrelevant numbers, figure out whether they are a victim or perpetrator, and stop whatever crime is about to happen.

That is the central conceit of the show.  Every week Finch and Reese receive a number (which equates to someone’s social security number), which leads them to a person.  They then do the work of finding that person and whatever it is they’ve gotten themselves involved with.  There is a greater plot thread in play, even during the initial seasons of the show, but it’s not very evident.  In fact, it’s not until near the end of the third season that a massive serialized arc takes shape.  If you’ve ever watched the show Fringe the format is pretty similar: procedural, standalone episodes detailing a “case of the week” and then the overarching episodes which impact the path the show takes as a whole.

The procedural aspect of the show is undoubtedly a product of the broadcast television format.  With twenty-odd episodes to make, it isn’t entirely possible to make them all about the main story, at least without making the main plot convoluted and overbearing.  This is the issue I expect most people to run into with this show, as it is the same issue I ran into later on when the main plot got to be really interesting.  There is a lot of filler in this show, episodes that have no real purpose whatsoever aside from being entertaining for that week.

Personally, I don’t mind procedural episodes that much as long as they’re well done, but I know that a lot of people get bored by them.  However, even when the show is at its most procedural, it is still a technically proficient one.  Gone are the days of X-Files, where one episode could be amazing and spellbinding, and then the next makes you question why you ever started watching the show in the first place.  At worst, the procedural episodes of Person of Interest can come across as bland and unoriginal.

And there are some really great procedural episodes in the show, ones that delve deeper into one of the characters.  For example, later on in the show there’s an episode that takes place almost entirely as one of the characters is dying from a gunshot wound.  At first, you don’t even know it either.  What you initially think is just a flashback to a conversation turns out to be a part of the character’s hallucination.  It’s a gripping episode and one of the show’s strongest in my opinion.  It goes to show that even procedural episodes can surprise you.

The show’s serial episodes are obviously what people are going to remember, and they are definitely riveting.  Initially, the show’s serial episodes focus on the nature of government surveillance, but later on the show’s science-fiction element takes center stage.  The show’s latter seasons focus on the power and dangers of artificial intelligence and grandiose reflections on the nature of humanity.  I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say that one side believes humanity needs to be forcibly guided while the other side believes humanity deserves to make its own choices.

Most of my complaints with the show are minor, although I did have one thing that kept nagging at me.  At times, the show’s procedural nature was at odds with its serialized plot.  This became increasingly evident in one of the later seasons.  Without spoiling too much, the events of one of the season finales requires that the main characters essentially go underground and keep a low profile.  And the first episode of the next season goes to great lengths to make that point, with Reese being scolded for doing what he normally does because it could blow his cover.  However, after all that, some of the procedural episodes seem to pretend that this isn’t even a problem.  Some episodes do make a point of it, with a character saying something along the lines of “you can’t just go in there and do that, you’ll risk exposing your cover!”  But then other episodes have them running into a place, shooting it up, beating the crap out of dudes and the like, and there is apparently no consequence for it.  It created this weird disjunction that once I noticed it I couldn’t stop noticing it.  Maybe I’m just nit-picking, but it really bothered me after a while.  I guess I just wanted to see more of the main plot instead of random, case-of-the-week episodes.

My other complaints are very minor.  Some of the episodes, particularly early on in the show, have weird abrupt endings that seem out of place.  The “plot bubble” effect in the show is strong, meaning that main characters (even bad guys) miraculously escape from harm because their pursuers suddenly have terrible aim with their weapons.  It just seems strange that John Reese can kneecap people with perfect accuracy but at other times can’t even manage to hit the person at all.

My only other complaint has to do with one of the main antagonists of the show.  At the end of one of the seasons, there’s a plot twist that reveals that he was basically planning things for years, working towards things from a time before the show even started.  Which makes no sense when you think about the fact that he had another plan a season earlier which utterly failed.  So that would mean that he knew his plan would fail or at the very least that he had a secondary plan in place in case he failed, which makes even less sense because that would mean he created a terrorist group for no reason.  It’s one of those things where when you start thinking about it, the bad guy’s “brilliant plan” actually ends up seeming really dumb.

In the end though, Person of Interest is a show that is definitely worth watching.  It takes a very nuanced approach to its themes (for the most part), and is consistently well-written.  It’s also not afraid to experiment.  One of the later episodes takes place mostly in the mind of the machine itself as it hypothesizes scenarios in an attempt to find an escape plan for our heroes.  At one point, the machine realizes it’s running out of time, so it simplifies the simulation.  This leads to a bizarrely funny bit where the characters are walking around speaking in strange placeholder dialogue like “flirty greeting” or “general statement of mission success”.

Person of Interest manages to surprise many times throughout its run.  It’s an action-heavy show that’s fun to watch but also has a lot of depth to it.  And I must say that the series finale is one of the most immensely satisfying and powerful finales I have seen in a long time.  It’s definitely worth a watch.  And hey, it’s all streamable on Netflix.  Isn’t that convenient?

Now I’m going to get out of here before I start sounding like a spokesperson for Netflix…

 

Well thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

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One thought on “Spotlight: Person of Interest

  1. Pingback: The Woes of Broadcast Shows – Rumination on the Lake

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