A Fond, Spoiler-Free Farewell to Person of Interest, a Science Fiction Tour de Force Disguised as a CBS Crime Drama
First of all, I’m a Bad Robot fan, and I’m proud of it. For those who don’t know, Bad Robot is a film and television production company owned by producer, writer, and director J.J. Abrams. It’s been responsible for shows such as Alias and Lost and films like Super 8, Cloverfield, and the new Star Trek series. Bad Robot has an outstanding record of producing top notch entertainment, so if they come out with something new, you know I’m going to check it out.
Back in 2011, my wife and I were in the middle of yet another exceptional Bad Robot series, Fringe, when we found out Abrams and company had another project forthcoming. Here was the basic premise: Wealthy, reclusive tech-savant employs ex-special forces/CIA operative to help save people who are in danger. Adventure and vigilante intrigue ensue.
The new show sounded interesting, if for no other reason than it featured Michael Emerson, who’d played creepy uber-villain Ben Linus on Lost. The other star, Jim Caviezel, had some cred in my book as well, having done a fine job in a little under-the-radar sci-fi flick called Frequency. Oh, and he played Jesus once, too, so that has to count for something.
On top of that, this undertaking was created by Jonathan Nolan, screenwriter extraordinaire and brother of filmmaker Christopher Nolan. This is the guy who wrote “Memento Mori,” the short story his brother adapted in the breakthrough 2000 film Memento, and he co-wrote the screenplays for The Prestige and The Dark Knight. That’s some impressive creative pedigree right there.
Now it’s 2016, and last Tuesday marked the end of that new series, Person of Interest, which turned out to be a brilliant work of day-after-tomorrow science fiction. That show also gave us five seasons of some of the most engaging and thought-provoking storytelling in recent television history.
Some folks might be surprised to hear Person of Interest classified as sci-fi, but it fits that description perfectly. Remember the people in jeopardy referenced earlier? They’re identified through social security numbers provided to the tech-wiz Harold Finch (Emerson) by the Machine, an artificial super intelligence (ASI) he created but subsequently lost to the U.S. government.
In the Person of Interest universe, everyone is under constant surveillance, through cell phones, laptops, traffic cameras, satellites, and countless other types of tech. Although the government has been using the Machine’s ability to predict terrorist attacks and global events, Finch has maintained the ability to use his creation covertly, enabling him and his partner, John Reese (Caviezel), to locate and protect people deemed irrelevant, the persons of interest.
This is why Person of Interest is science fiction. It considers current technology and extrapolates on its capabilities and their implications, asking compelling “What if?” questions. If we know someone is going to commit a crime, do we have an obligation to stop them before it happens? (Philip K. Dick, anyone?) More important, do we have the right to stop them? Is it ethical to spy on people in order to protect them? Is it possible for one person’s life to even matter in the scheme of human existence? Can a person ever atone for the sins of his past? Does artificial life qualify as actual life? These themes are also part of what transforms Person of Interest from a generic CBS crime drama into a riveting meditation on existential concerns like the conflict between man vs. machine, the right to privacy, and the meanings of morality, humanity, friendship, and redemption.
Another element that elevates this show above the usual suspects is the way its backstory unfolds. Much like another Bad Robot production, Lost, Person of Interest uses flashbacks to great effect to piece its story together. The Machine knows and sees just about everything, so from time to time, we’re allowed into its memory to see some of the things it’s witnessed. This layering effect is also one of the reasons this series is an all-or-nothing proposition. You can’t watch an episode here and there and expect to keep up.
All these components aside, though, the thing that truly sets this show apart is its cast of characters. Harold Finch is like a modern day Victor Frankenstein, only this time around, the creator is all too aware of the implications of his creation, and he’s more than willing to take responsibility, perhaps even too much so. John Reese is troubled by his past, and Finch gives him something to believe in, something that might even help Reese partially atone for what he’s done.
Over the course of the series, other players join, leave, and re-join Team Machine. There’s NYPD detective Joss Carter and her somewhat shady partner Lionel Fusco; there’s Root, vigilante hacker and self-proclaimed hand of the Machine; there’s Sameen Shaw, who has a black ops past similar to Reese’s but with none of the guilt; there’s Bear the dog, a Belgian Malinois Reese rescues from Aryan nationalists. And then there’s the Machine. Yes, even the Machine becomes a real player in this story.
Any one of these characters could be a cliché—two first-rate hackers, a disturbed veteran, a corrupt cop, an ex-assassin with sociopathic tendencies, a near-omniscient AI—but each defies expectation and transcends the scripted version, becoming a living, breathing person. Yet during all of this, the story still manages to cohere around Finch and Reese, tracking the evolution of their shaky partnership into a strong friendship.
Yes, Team Machine breaks many of the same rules as the bad guys. They survey, stalk, kidnap, threaten, and blackmail, but only when it’s necessary to save the innocent. If this sounds problematic, that’s because it is, and that’s really the point of the story. There are no pat answers. When you know how to save the world—even if it’s one person at a time—how far can you go before you become the thing you’re trying to fight? Person of Interest attempts to address this question, but there’s never an easy resolution. In fact, you can rest assured that any answer will be followed by another, more perplexing question.
The overall beauty of Person of Interest is its willingness to take profound risks, to tell its story slowly and sometimes leave the viewer wonder what’s happening. These folks don’t mind keeping things ambiguous, and when they do finally draw the threads together, they don’t beat us over the head with them. You won’t often see our heroes staring off into the middle distance as a handy flashback connects the narrative dots. This series is smart, and the showrunners expect their audience to be just as smart. That’s a rare thing these days.
So thanks, Bad Robot, for the amazing Person of Interest ride. Some shows are fun to watch because they entertain and distract us, while others remind us why we’ve always loved stories, the ones we continue to carry with us long after they end. Thanks for giving us these characters to care about, laugh with, and root for. Thanks for a series that was, from beginning to end, captivating, clever, and unexpectedly moving.