Reclusive computer genius Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) and former CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) combine their unusual skills to thwart violent crimes deemed ‘irrelevant’ by a machine designed by Finch in the aftermath of 9/11 for use by the government to thwart future terrorist attacks.
A modern twist on an old standard
You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn’t act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You’ll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up … we’ll find you.
The basic set-up of Person of Interest is a familiar one. Of course, the first thought is of the Tom Cruise film Minority Report with its theme of thwarting crimes before they can occur. However, this is essentially an ‘angel of mercy’ procedural which can trace its bloodlines back through series such as The Equalizer (with Reese replacing Robert McCall) and even Knight Rider (with Finch being a human KITT). There’s also a backdrop of Cold War dramas, with many of the covert activities undertaken by the off-the-books CIA unit Reese was associated with being distinctly unsavoury, with some even taking place against American citizens on American soil.
Person of Interest‘s added variable is that the Machine (to which Finch has access via a back-door) only provides social security numbers of those identified in the ‘irrelevant’ list, with no indication as to whether they are due to be the victim or perpetrator. Several episodes twist and turn so rapidly and slyly that it is not until deep into the plot that we discover whether that week’s number is a budding criminal or victim.
That uncertainty of good/bad and multiple, convoluted plot twists are two of the series’ signature trademarks which help give POI its unique identity. But regular viewers will also recognise the stylised use of inter-cut CCTV footage to provide a Machine’s-eye view of events, frequently carrying snippets of phone conversations between Finch and Reese which artfully dispose of the need for on-screen exposition with two or three snappy lines of dialogue.
This is a prime example of the pace at which POI operates. Expositional scenes are surplus to requirements, and frequently episodes throw us right into the middle of a case and leave the viewer to catch up, rather than give us two acts’ worth of set-up. Instead, the show is firmly focussed on stripping things down to basics: plot, character development and, increasingly towards the end of the season, flashbacks to fill in the gaps in Reese and Finch’s own back-stories.
The show has also found the confidence to play with its own format and the greyness of its own morality. Finch and Reese have had to deal with ‘numbers of the week’ ranging from the heads of New York’s five mafia families, an infant child (a rare and successful foray into comedy) and even with one number seemingly shared by two separate individuals. And when Reese needs to find out-of-the-box means of ensuring that a would-be perpetrator never has the opportunity to enact his crime, we have seen that he has a line into Mexican prisons who house a surprising number of American prisoners. Useful.
The main characters
Speaking of which, POI has an exceptionally well-defined set of principal characters. Reese and Finch’s histories have been slowly teased out over the course of the season via judiciously drip-fed flashbacks. These have slowly unveiled the events surrounding Reese’s departure from the CIA and the loss of his love, Jessica, who married and was subsequently killed by her husband during a domestic dispute. In Finch’s case, the mystery involves the fate of former business partner Nathan Ingram and the circumstances surrounding which he has retained access to the Machine.
Initially all business, the relationship between the pair has gradually thawed and, as we discover late on in the season, actually goes back further than we (or Reese) originally thought. Despite their growing bond, however, each keep secrets from the other: Finch about the less than serendipitous way in which he found Reese, Reese about the fact he detailed Fusco to uncover more about the secretive Finch.
Both Reese and Finch are exceptionally cast. It takes a while to warm to Caviezel’s emotionless, almost blank acting style, but occasional Spock-like flashes of expression reveal the character’s inner turmoils and dry humour. And Emerson brings the same single-minded focus and introverted awkwardness to Finch that he imbued Lost‘s Benjamin Linus with.
Police detectives Joss Carter (Taraji P Henson) and Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman) have also been well drawn. Carter, a former army interrogator, is in some ways a female. more humanised version of Reese. Both are action-driven, tough and uncompromising, but she won’t stray into the morally grey areas he inhabits. She spends the first half of the series pursuing the mysterious ‘man in the suit’ before eventually allying with him and Finch. (A wise move, as there’s only so long you can have one character unsuccessfully pursuing another before they start to resemble Wile E Coyote.)
Fusco started out as a crooked cop who Reese initially blackmails to use as a source inside the police department, but who also becomes a valuable additional resource on cases, playing a central role in the infiltration of HR, a body of corrupt police officers and officials working to allow organised crime in New York to continue in a controlled fashion. Only in the finale do he and Carter discover they have both been working separately with Reese and Finch.
Arguably there is also a fifth major character: the Machine itself. Omnipresent in the background, there has been a growing sense throughout the season that it may have gained a degree of sentience, culminating with Reese addressing it directly in the closing scene of the finale.
Where we will go at the start of season two is anyone’s guess. With Finch kidnapped by the hacker Root (Angel‘s Amy Acker), who has a distinct interest in the Machine, and Reese left making a direct appeal to the Machine and receiving a response via a ringing payphone – amazingly, it worked! – we will certainly have a manhunt on our hands in the opening episodes.
But after a finale which put the HR storyline seemingly on ice – the sole disappointing aspect of the episode was the ease with which the organisation was effectively decapitated – and the FBI taskforce was spectacularly ineffective at capturing Reese (they’re even worse than the FBI team in The Following), where will next season’s Big Bad come from? A reborn HR, perhaps? More likely we will see the re-emergence of CIA man Mark Snow looking to tie up the loose ends from Reese and his partner Kara Stanton’s final mission, which was meant to end up with both of them dead. And we will surely see a return for Carl Elias, the illegitimate son of the head of one of New York’s Five Families, currently in prison but nonetheless looking set to take over organised crime in the city.
After a slightly uncertain gestation, season one of Person of Interest quickly found its stride and the second half of the season is as strong a run of episodes as we have seen on TV for many years. There isn’t a single weak story among them and several are outstanding.
Audience response in the US has also been strong. Premiering with 13.3 million viewers was an impressive enough start, but unusually it closed its debut season with an even larger audience of 13.5m. (Most new shows experience a significant drop-off after their first episode which is never regained.) And positive word-of-mouth ensured that season two came back even stronger still, opening with 14.3m viewers. Nearly a full year behind in the UK, we can but hope that Five’s promise that POI will return ‘later in the year’ proves to be closer to summer than to Christmas.
In a modern post-9/11 context, Person of Interest is a taut examination of how the greatest enemies to our personal freedoms lie within our own ranks, aided by a Big Brother society in which every move we make can be surveilled. More importantly, though, it is first and foremost an outstanding take on the tried-and-trusted procedural genre – and the most innovative this reviewer has seen since Life on Mars. If you’re not watching it, you really should be.
Rating: 9/10 (8/10 for the first half, 10/10 for the second).