Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Person of Interest

The show: Person of Interest, Thursdays on CBS

The premise in ten words or less? A machine predicts murders, two men stop them.

Any good? First off, I should note that calling this a "pilot review" is fraudulent, as I actually shotgunned all four existing episodes in rapid succession just before writing this (but "First Four Episodes Inspektor Tim" just doesn't have the same ring to it). But in a sense it makes no difference, as the next three chapters largely just confirmed both the good and the bad things I had suspected from the first.

Person of Interest is a procedural, with many of the problems that genre entails – being episodic and fairly predictable – but it also happens to be the strongest procedural of the fall. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise considering the pedigree behind it, which includes creator Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher and co-writer of The Dark Knight) and executive producers Nolan and J.J. Abrams. (But, the greatness of Star Trek and Super 8 notwithstanding, let's not forget Abrams was also behind last fall's largely unfortunate NBC procedural Undercovers.)

What separates it from most other procedurals and aligns it in a way more with 24 or Homeland is that rather than solving crimes, the two men at the show's center are out to prevent crimes before they happen. But unlike in 24 or Homeland, they're not out to stop huge terrorist threats but more everyday murders.

The show, while set in 2011, takes place in a very lightly sci-fi alternate universe where, after 9/11, Finch (Michael Emerson of Lost fame) was tasked with creating The Machine, which sees everything going on all throughout the country through a million eyes, hears everything through a million years, intercepts every email, records every phone call – basically, everyone everywhere is spied on at all times. The Machine then analyzes the data and reports who is going to be the victim of fatal violence. The government only used The Machine to prevent major terrorist attacks, but, upset that ordinary murders were being discarded, Finch set out on his own.

But Finch is martially untrained and walks with a limp, so he drafts aimless but deadly veteran Reese (Jim Caviezel of Jesus Christ of Nazareth fame), the show's protagonist, to be his instrument of justice, and the two go into the vigilante business together. But, as The Machine only gives the identities of people who will be involved in murders – not when, how, or why the murders will happen or even whether the person it pinpoints is the victim or the killer – the job also involves detective work.

Now, what the premise is immediately reminiscent of is Batman's cell phone sonar at the end of The Dark Knight, to the extent that it could almost be accused of being a ripoff if it weren't from the same writer. It could also be compared to Homeland, which doesn't have any science fiction but does examine the push and pull between privacy and national security.

The problem, from a greater political standpoint, is that, as of four episodes in and unlike in The Dark Knight or Homeland, neither the heroes nor the narrative of Person of Interest have given the slightest indication that there's anything disturbing or wrong about the power to spy on every single person in America at will. I'm not necessarily saying the series is right-wing, but it is, at the very least, a little tone deaf.

Like pretty much all of CBS's scripted programming – comedy, drama, or whatever – Person of Interest is well-engineered to have an infinitely sustainable premise lacking any real direction, goal, or end point, so the series can viably go on for ten seasons so long as they can keep devising new weekly crimes. No shocker there: That's the formula that's put CBS on top and there's no reason for them to tweak it now.

But what is surprising is that there is a sense of continuity, with the fourth episode following up on a subplot from the pilot and making direct references to the events of the third episode while expecting viewers to keep up. That doesn't sound like anything special if you're used to good TV, but, given this is a CBS procedural, I'll admit I was taken aback. It certainly gives the show a leg up on the rigidly, almost depressingly episodic Prime Suspect in that regard.

But whereas Maria Bello's Jane Timoney was the only thing that kept me watching Prime Suspect for the few episodes I did before giving up, Person of Interest's hero Reese may be the weak link of his own show. He's given this very blandly badass characterization, without any hint of internal life or personality, never losing his cool, never intimidated or flummoxed by anything, taking down every obstacle without breaking a sweat. He's like a good Anton Chigurh, which isn't as interesting as you might think. His generic procedural protagonist backstory of having lost someone is no more inspired than it is with Poppy Montgomery's character on Unforgettable, and Jim Caviezel does little to give him the extra kick to smooth over the weak writing.

The supporting cast fares a bit better, although none of them just grabbed me by the balls. Michael Emerson's oracle-type techie backup Finch, while given little more characterization on the page than Reese, is, unlike Reese, jolted to life by his actor. Emerson was always great as Ben Linus on Lost, even when given shit to work with, and he captures this odd balance that makes Finch simultaneously just a little creepy while also being clearly on the side of good. Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Chapman fill out the rest of the rather tiny main cast as two cops, the former good and searching for Reese, the latter dirty and doing Reese's bidding on threat of exposure. Neither are bad, neither remarkable.

Ultimately, Person of Interest has some good things going for it that separate it from merely being Generic Crime Procedural #8139, and you could do worse with your TV viewing. But it also has its unfortunate aspects – the foremost of which may be the fact that the show's message essentially seems to boil down to "spying, wiretapping, and the dissolution of privacy are awesome and would solve every problem" – and, given that it airs the same night as Community and Parks and Recreation, you could do better too.

Will I watch again? Probably not, but that's more my general antipathy for procedurals speaking than a comment on the fairly acceptable quality level of the show. If you're going to watch a new procedural this fall, make it Person of Interest before Prime Suspect and way, way before Unforgettable. (And Charlie's Angels, lol.)

Premise: B-

Execution: B-

Performances: B-

Potential: B-


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