Person of Interest was a five season series appearing on CBS from 2011 to 2016, intially starring Michael Emerson (fresh from playing Ben Linus in Lost), Jim Caviezel (previously Jesus in The Passion of the Christ and Number 6 in the remake of The Prisoner, though I don’t hold that against him), together with Taraji P Henson and Kevin Chapman. It was conceived by Jonathan Nolan, brother of the Film Director Christopher Nolan, who wrote the pilot episode, and was one of the series’ Executive Producers, as was J.J. Abrams.
I’ve watched Person of Interest twice, bingewatching it in 2016, as the series was running to a close, and then again as I bought the DVD boxsets. I had watched a single episode previously on Channel 5, who broadcast it in the UK, but I couldn’t recognise which one when I resaw it: it did nothing for me then. When I finally downloaded season 1 on spec, I was hooked so hard I was regularly watching four episodes a night.
This rewatch will proceed at the leisurely pace of one a week, in the Tuesday morning slot, and will, I hope, be of interest, especially to those yet to experience the series.
So what is PoI about? It’s the Pilot’s job to establish the parameters of the world we are entering, and to suggest that there is more to the show than is displayed in the Pilot, and Nolan does a bang-up job on this.
We start with a brief scene of delight, in the sun: two lovers, in bed, kissing and touching, obviously happy. Though we don’t yet know it, this scene is a flashback. Over the first two series, there will be a lot of flashbacks. We cut, via a shot from a surveillance camera, to the same man: bushy haired, bearded, dressed in rags, a homeless drunkard on the subway, about to be hassled by some stupid, arrogant kids. Except that he’s a viciously efficient fighter, splattering them all across the carriage.
Cut to the Police station. The homeless guy and the punks have been hauled in and are being checked out by Detective Carter. She recognises the drunkard’s moves as being Spec Ops or something incredibly similar, and sympathises with the guy about the dofficulties of transitioning back to civilian life. He barely responds, won’t give a name. Whilst she’s having his fingerprints checked, and turning up evidence relating to multiple murders and outstanding warrants, involving multiple countries, he’s getting bailed out by a high power lawyer.
At the behest of a man he doesn’t know, who he meets under one of New York’s famous bridges (I’m sorry, I don’t recognise which). The man gives his name as Mr Finch. He calls the drunkard Mr Reece, appears to know a startling amount of intelligence about him, enough to shock Reece, who for the past two months has been trying to drink himself to death and who is ready to go on to quicker and more effective methods of achieving that end. Mr Finch believes that Mr Reece is in need of a purpose, and that he can give him one.
For Mr Finch has a list. A list of people who, in a very short time, are about to be involved in things dirty and ugly, mostly murder. Murders can be kept from happening if you know about thn in time. Mr Finch does. He wants to employ Mr Reece to prevent those murders.
Thus we have the set-up for what, over its first two seasons, is a complex and high-concept procedural. Each week, the show will identify a Person of Interest, someone who, within a short time, will be either a victim or, more rarely, a perpetrator. Finch and Reece will investigate, and intervene to stop that killing from happening.
The high concept twist is, of course, the idea of reliable intelligence that a murder is about to take place, which takes the programme into the realms of science fiction. In every other respect, it’s grounded and contemporary, set in modern day New York, using a technology apprpriate to the day. Person of Interest will be, in its first two seasons, about the Number of the Week.
Yes, Number. Finch (not his real name) is played by Emerson, and he is his usual stunningly good self. He’s a little man, physically, who walks with a stiff leg and ca only turn his head by turning his shoulders. He’s an intensely prvate, intensely rich man. Reece (Caviezel) initially refuses to work for him, diagnosing him as a bored rich man, and the Number he is calling Reece’s attention to an ex-wife, or a stranger he’s stalking.
It’s cynical, but it’s perfectly possible, which forces Finch to go to greater lengths to comvince Reece of his bona fides, by making Reece witness to a murder he instinctively tries to prevent but which he can’t, because it happened three years ago. Something is driving Finch, something we can only wonder about at this stage, something that matters to him. To know a murder is about to take place. To be unable to stop the loss of life. It’s in Reece as well. Indeed, the very idea may well be in all of us to one extent or another: who, knowing adeath is about to take place, would not wantto act if we could prevent it?
That’s the universal point on which the series bases itself. At different points in the Pilot, both Finch and Reece describe themselves, the latter slightly facetiously, as ‘concerned third parties’. Both are operating under assumed names. Both are believed to be dead. Both face the probability that if they continue doing this, they will actually be made dead. But do it they will.
The pilot adds one more substantive layer to the set-up. How is Finch getting his intel, which comes in the form of Social Security Numbers, nothing more? The answer is what will carry the series beyond its initial, comparatively limited format. In the wake of ‘the Towers’ (i.e., 9/11), the US Government granted itself the power to intercept and read/hear evety form of communication, from every possible source of surveillance, audio and/or visual. Information beyond the capacity of any human being to comprehend. It needed a machine to sift and analyse all that data, to recognise and draw together the strands that add up to plotted terrorist activity, involving mass deaths.
Finch built that machine, calls it simply The Machine. But he built it too well. Not only does it recognise terrorist leads, which go to the Government, but it recognises all pre-meditated death. At midnight, it purges all such information a Irrelevant. But Finch built a back door into the Machine, and it transmits the Irrelevant Numbers to him.
We have a set-up for a series, but we also have two other cast members. Henson is Detective Joss (Jocelyn) Carter, who is hunting for the mysterious homeless drunkard. She’s only got a minor role in the Pilot, a set-up, the Inspector Javets. On the other hand, we see more of Detective Lionel Fusco (Chapman), whose role is more complex.
That first Number, Assisant DA Diane Hansen, turns out to be perpetrator, not victim, via a group of corrupt cops, to whiich Fusco is involved. They’re stealing drugs, killing witnesses and setting up ‘innocent’ dealers to tak the fall, via Fusco’s investigations. Reece intervenes, kills the lead figure with Fusco’s gun, leaving Fusco to bury the body in secrecy, and Reece with a hold over him that he intends to exploit by using the detective as his mole inside the Police. He chooses Fusco because he doesn’t believe his heart isin being a dirty cop, he’s just loyal. Thatwon’t be the attitude Reece gives Fusco for a long time, but let’s not give away too much too soon.
That’s how our quartet are set up to begin with. I haven’t even ouched upon the show’s fast-paced editing, its constant cutting into surveillance footage, it’s ‘gimmick’ of overlaying that with graphics that represent the Machine viewing and assessing, it’s quick, compressed violence, its overall slickness. What we have is a perfect pilot: a strong, unusual but clearly defined format, two central characters about both of whom are mysteries as to who, what, when, where and why, to be doled out with intense slowness. We began with a flashback, to Reece, happy, with Jessica (Susan Misner), so happy he’s resigned from the Army to be with her. he’s telling her this in a Mexican Hotel bedroom. On September 11th, 2001.
Jessica is dead. One fact we’re given. There’s a lot to learn.
The Pilot doesn’t just set up Reece and Finch as people we want to know more about, it outlines a world in which massive things can happen. And it has The Machine, something out of the ten-minutes-into-the-future branch of SF. Such things doon’t exist yet (we hope). I don’t know how far ahead Nolan was thinking with this Pilot, but the presence of the Machine will lead us into strange and not entirely comfortable waters.
Which we shall begin to explore next week. Join me?
*As an addendum, the Box Set includes an unaired alternate version of the Pilot that’s almost ten minutes longer. It’s an interesting viewing, the material excised from the broadcast pilot being mostly additional information that explains perhaps a bit too much at this stage of the game. There’s a snippet that clues us in on Hansen’s background but which enables the astute to spot the twist before it arrives, and there’s additional material that foreshadows and specifies the to-be-framed ex-con Robinson, who otherwise goes unnamed. I’m always a glutton for more, for supporting detail, but I can see why the deletions. Nolan and co. are going to be about the slow and ultra-careful parcelling out of background details and these start to sketch out too many corners too soon.