"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 act 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."
So begins each episode of Person of Interest, now midway through its first season and the only new show of the 2011 season I'm bothering to follow. Created by Jonathan Nolan - brother to Chris Nolan of The Dark Knight and Inception fame - Person of Interest is a kind of police procedural with a post-911 twist: secretive billionaire Mr. Finch (the delightfully creepy Michael Emerson) uses the machine he built for the government to prevent crimes before they happen. Each episode the machine spits out a social insurance number, which Finch and his enforcer, John Reese (the often wooden but serviceable Jim Caviezel) use to identify the victim - or perhaps the perpetrator. They don't know which the "person of interest" is until they investigate.
I started watching partly because of Nolan's pedigree and because the series is produced by Bad Robot, JJ Abrams' production company. At first I wasn't especially impressed. The show begins with pretty standard 21st century tropes: you have your emotionally wounded ex-mercenary with a dark past trying to atone for his sins, your socially awkward but brilliant tech guy, lots of shenanigans with hacking into computer systems and cell phones, gunplay, martial arts and all the other hoo-ha common to action/adventure shows.
But as a student of serialized drama, I've kept watching because sometimes visionary creators start off using standard formulas to secure a core mainstream audience, then increase the show's complexity once they have that base of viewers. My patience is slowly being rewarded as we learn more about the characters and the world they inhabit. Through flashbacks, we learn that Mr. Finch had a business partner, an idealist whose doom is heavily foreshadowed (and in fact made explicit in the most recent episode). Reese's character is given additional nuance, his plight made more sympathetic and believable as we discover how he was manipulated by his political masters. In a couple of episodes, our heroes guess wrong when it comes to determining the nature of the person of interest - victim or perpetrator. And they even fail a couple of times, the bad guy getting away.
Most exciting to me, however, are the subtle hints - usually embedded in computer graphics that flash by almost subliminally - that the machine itself acts to protect itself and may be developing sentience. Person of Interest is, currently, only marginally a science fiction show, extrapolating only in one sense, imagining even more public surveillance than we currently endure today. It is not yet a show about renegade artificial intelligences, and it may never be. But as a fan of SF and AI stories in particular, the creators have certainly hooked me for the duration.
The show is also starting to raise questions about the legitimacy of ubiquitous surveillance. In one flashback, Finch and his business partner have a discussion about the implications of the machine they're about to hand over to the government, and whether or not it's wise. In the end they hand over the machine, but not without turning it into a self-contained, uncrackable system with strictly limited powers of observation, answerable only to itself; even the men who created it can no longer manipulate it. All this is done rather matter-of-factly, but the story possibilities of such an act are tremendously tantalizing. And of course Finch and Reese invade privacy and break the law every week, their actions questioned only by the police detective who, in the early episodes at least, is trying to chase them down. She's recently been subverted to the cause, which may damage the ethical integrity of the show (such as it is); I hope that the creators will introduce another antagonist to replace her, because the leads really need to be reminded in real terms that the ends to not justify the means. This is a show about vigilantes, and I hope that at some point they'll get a karmic smackdown for their methods.
Larger debates aside, Person of Interest is becoming a good show. Not a great show - 85 percent of the writing remains formulaic - but a show of...interest. Emerson is fantastic, the production values are top notch, the premise solid, the potential for powerful themes just waiting to be fully tapped. I hope Nolan and his team grow bolder, because they could have a real gem on their hands.