Why you should take an interest in Person of Interest

It’s one of the ten most watched shows in the US yet in the UK it languishes in the backwaters of freeview. Here’s why you should seek it out!

So what are we talking about today?

A TV show: Person of Interest.

What kind of show is it?

It blends elements of thrillers, sci-fi and detective shows.

So what’s the story?

After 9/11, the US government looks for a way to prevent it happening again and turn to a reclusive billionaire named Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) to provide a solution. He builds them a massively advanced computer system known as “the Machine.” It harvests virtually all data produced online and feeds them into a massively sophisticated AI to predict terror attacks with near infallible accuracy. The government, aware that such a system would create an outcry if its existence ever became known, decrees that it must remain secret. This creates a dilemma for Finch when he realises that the Machine is also identifying plots to kill individuals. The government won’t help them because doing so would involve revealing where the information was coming from. Finch’s solution is to turn to a former black-ops officer named John Reese (Jim Cavaziel). The show follows their unofficial efforts to thwart these attempted murders.

So this was inspired by stories about NSA snooping then?

You would have thought so but rather remarkably this is a case of life imitating art. The first two series had already aired by the time Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the Prism program. And while the show is on the surface a pretty schlocky procedural, it does do some pretty serious stuff about the surveillance state and big data.

What is more, its topicality doesn’t end with those themes. As the series progresses it becomes clear that the Machine is evolving to be capable of quite a bit more than just predicting crimes. So the show begins exploring the potential consequences of artificial intelligence.

As this is Christopher Nolan week I take it this has some connection to him?

Yep. It was created by his brother, Jonathan, who also wrote the screenplay for the Dark Knight, the Dark Knight Rises and now Interstellar. Arguably as importantly he was the author of a short story which his elder brother adapted into Memento.

So is Person of Interest like a Christopher Nolan film?

Not really. Despite its often grand themes, it’s an awful lot less earnest than the elder Nolan’s films. In fact, at times it verges on being cheesy.  And Person of Interest doesn’t attempt anything like the visual grandiosity of say Inception.

That said you can see Jonathan Nolan taking some of the ideas he introduced in the Dark Knight and developing them in Person of Interest. Most obviously both feature technology for total surveillance and ask if it can be justified. It reuses also the idea of a billionaire deciding to combat crime though in the case of Person of Interest he relies on someone else to do the fighting, shooting and running. And it takes a similar view of the dynamics of vigilantism. Like Batman, Reese becomes an urban legend: “the man in the suit.” And like Bruce Wayne, Reese and Finch are simultaneously hunted and assisted by the police. There’s also comic book like about the way the show builds up a roster of recurring villains.

Why do you like it so much?

This is network TV*at its best. It has serious themes but doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s mostly popcorn telly with occasional deeper moments thrown in. It manages a pleasing blend of tension and humour, and handles both of those elements with alacrity. So the dialogue is as sharp as the fight scenes are crunchy. It also makes use of the ‘case of the week’ format used for mainstream fare like CSI but still builds in the kind of stories which develop over a whole series that one associates with more ambitious fare like Game of Thrones. Which, come to think of it, is a good metaphor for what this show is like!

It’s particularly successful at creating a cast of characters you want to be in the company of.  The interplay between Finch and Reese often resembles something out of a buddy cop movie. There are also plenty of strong supporting players. The most notable are Taraji P. Henson’s driven NYPD detective and Amy Acker’s affably psychotic hacker.

So where can I watch it?

The fourth series is currently airing on CBS in the States. British viewers can see the third one will be 5 USA next year (you can read my griping about that disparity here).

The first two seasons are now also on Netflixs.



*I.e. shows made for mainstream free to air US TV networks. So not Mad Men or the Wire!