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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Perspective of Interest

I'm fascinated by the tropes and formulas of dramatic television. Played straight, they can codify important values and principles - do the right thing, fight intolerance, tell the truth, work together, don't be greedy. Inverted or subverted, they can point out our culture's weaknesses: our deep-seated need for comfort at all costs, our hypocrisy, our gluttony, our tacit approval of state-sponsored violence, torture and abuse of civil rights.

Or sometimes television writers will play with formulas just for fun, as in the latest episode of Person of Interest, "Prisoner's Dilemma." Serialized dramas have become so complex that many shows for the last couple of decades have featured a "Last time on..." reel of clips to bring viewers up to speed on plot and character arcs. Usually these are straightforward affairs, with one of the series' actor intoning "Last time on (name of show)..." and then falling silent as a carefully-chosen selection of clips from prior episodes - all relevant to the upcoming episode, of course - encapsulate a season or more's worth of plot in a few seconds.

Person of Interest is unique among current shows because it has its own omniscient narrator, "the machine," which watches everyone, everywhere, all the time. How apropos, then, that the machine itself would present the latest episode's "Last time on..." reel, not with a conventional string of clips, but with footage from security cameras, vehicle rear-view cameras, webcams and the million other eyes of modern-day civilization, footage overlaid by the machine's rapid-fire, somewhat cryptic textual analysis of the clips. The technique has to be seen to be really appreciated, but I found it a remarkably clever way to liven up a well-worn trope. As Person of Interest continues, the machine is slowly becoming not just the foundation of the series' premise, but a unique and interesting character in its own right, one that makes all kinds of narrative tricks possible. 

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