“I thought that was a procedural?”
“But it’s one of those dull CBS shows, yes?”
“It’s just based on the computer from Batman: The Dark Knight, right?”
Those are the three most common responses I receive when I tell people they should watch Person of Interest. For whatever reason, it has been labeled as just another police procedural, with a slight twist.
Yes, it has a procedural setup. But it’s also one of the best SF shows ever. (For my mind, the overall body is at least as good as Mr. Robot, the critics’ darling.) What is the show about? In essence, it’s about Finch, who built an all-knowing computer, the Machine, and his use of a back door to get the numbers of people “irrelevant” to the Machine’s mission of protecting the United States from terrorists. Those irrelevants still need help and Finch gives it to them. Assisting Finch is Reese, an ex-black ops CIA agent with a serious protector complex.
Or, as the beginning of each show says, “victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up, we’ll find you.”
So why do I think so highly of POI? See below. (And if I’ve convinced you, you can binge watch the first four seasons on Netflix, and the spectacular season 5 is now out on DVD, and is priced at $22.50 on Amazon.)
WARNING: VAGUE SPOILERS BELOW
1. The Long Term Planning
The writers clearly knew exactly where each one of the characters needed to go by the end of the show and where the plot needed to end. That’s nowhere more clear than in the cast of Root, played by Amy Acker, who at first seemed to the main opposition to the team of Reese and Finch but turns out to be one of the keys to the entire show.
2. Kick Over the Status Quo
At the end of each season, POI changes the stakes. In the first season, the emotional stakes are whether the growing bond between Finch and Reese will hold and whether Reese and Detective Joss Carter can find a way to trust each other. Then Root goes after Finch and the tables are completely re-arranged for season 2. Similarly, season 4 ends on a cliffhanger where I became emotional at the idea of a disembodied artificial intelligence dying.
There’s no safe in this show and where it goes is often unpredictable yet makes perfect sense.
3. Complex Leads
There’s a t-shirt describing the leads of Person of Interest: “The Man in the Suit & the Perky Psycho & the Sociopath & the Man Who Built God,” and that’s an accurate description of the leads of the show in seasons 4 and 5. Missing from that description is Taraji Henson’s brilliant Det. Joss Carter, the moral center of the story, and Detective Fusco, the everyman who moves from corrupt cop to hero.
Check out the clip below in what seems like a classic “dress up pretty to catch the bad guys scene” and instead turns into the ladies each admiring the other’s weapons.
Finch (Michael Emerson) is the man who built the Machine and yet doesn’t completely trust his own creation; that’s why he built in a silent backdoor. Reese (Jim Caviezel) is the soldier who needs to have a war to fight or he’s lost. Root, well, moves from believing everyone is just “Bad Code” to something deeper and Sarah Shahi’s Sameen Shaw believes she’s somehow not as human as the rest because her feelings are so naturally suppressed. These are all complicated people who have equally complex character journeys, pondering the overriding moral questions of whether what they’re doing is right or appropriate.
4. Brilliant Acting
It’s depressing that none of the leads on the show were ever nominated for anything. Michael Emerson in “The Day the World Went Away” episode in season 5 deserves an Emmy for one scene alone. Henson, so memorably over-the-top in Empire, plays Carter with a repressed intensity that makes her the show’s rock, even after her character is gone. Acker breezily commits mayhem as Root with a flair that’s never less than entertaining. Shahi’s Shaw at first seemed a female Reese until the actress peels back the layers to show how lost she is. When emotions finally break through to the surface, Shaw is heartbreaking to watch.
And Caviezel? He holds attention without saying a word. As for Kevin Chapman’s Fusco, well, he gets all the best lines and shows his hidden depths.
Heck, even the dog has flair.
5. The Machine
The Machine has perhaps 3 lines through four seasons yet becomes the most fascinating character in the story. Seasons 4 and 5 are all about the Machine’s character arc, as an omnipotent intelligence it must sort out why it exists and what it should do with its power. How human is the Machine? Every word it says will hit you in the feels. Finch, however, lays out why even a benevolent AI might not be a good thing.
6. Death Matters
Without giving too much away–okay, yes, Henson’s role on Empire shows she left the show before it ended–whenever death hits home to our heroes, it never ceases to matter. It’s not about shock value and each death is used to show how grief can affect each character for a lifetime. Finch’s best friend and former business partner, Nathan, dies in an assassination attempt before the show begins but thoughts of Nathan and the longing to have his friend back are never far from Finch’s thoughts. Root’s quest to “let the Machine” free has its roots in a quest to avenge a dead friend. Reese, too, never fails to feel the effects of losing all he loves, and when Carter is no longer around, he never, ever forgets.
There is never a cheap death in the show. The characters carry it with them, forever.
7. The Intense Last Season
Season 5 of POI is just 13 episodes instead of 22. As the creators knew the show was ending and they would likely only get a short order, they packed everything possible into what they had. And every single episode will have you at the edge of your seat. Of my top ten favorite POI episodes, at least four of them are in season 5. All that long-term planning pays off, magnificently.
8. It’s Relevant To Our Times
Like Mr. Robot, POI takes on the question of how much control humanity should have over itself. Is it better to be protected and safe than be free and risk chaos? The show takes on questions of privacy, government spying, police corruption, and the power of gangs to give people a purpose. The show will teach you to be paranoid but not without reason.
9. It Offers Hope
Yes, it can be a dark show. Death touches our characters more than once. But it’s also about the power of a single individual to produce positive change, about how people who’ve made the wrong decisions can help others make the right ones. There’s an episode in season 5 where we find out what happened to some of the people whose numbers have come up in past seasons. What they’re doing now and why they’re doing it made me smile. This is a show that believes people helping people will always make a difference.
10. The Flashbacks Work
There are so many shows where the flashbacks are a waste of time. (Hello, Arrow!) The little snippets of the past given to us under the guise of the Machine playing bits in time are always relevant not only to the current episode but to the overall character arcs of everyone. Perhaps the best ones concern the flashbacks into how the Machine was built and why Finch made the choices that he did to teach it morality. They always add something to the narrative flow. I just wish I could find someone who had put them together, in order, so I could watch them all at once.
Oh, wait, look someone did! It’s three hours but that’s across four seasons. That’s how quick they are in each episode.
No show is perfect. Because POI relies on the procedural as a base, some episodes can be less interesting than others. But it’s the rare show that gets better and ups its game every season, to the point where in season 5, the conclusion is note perfect.
Sticking the landing isn’t easy. This show does.