Thursday, October 3, 2013

Person of Interest: A History, Recommendation, and Conversation

Entering its third season, Person of Interest has a lot going on. I really want to talk about this week’s episode in particular (season 3 episode 2), but there’s so much to unpack before we get there. Enough so that I’m not quite sure where to start. Maybe the premise? Maybe I’ll assume you don’t know what the heck this show is and we can take it from there. Sound good?

Person of Interest is a show in which Ben from LOST tells Jesus who to kill, and then Jesus kills them.

Wait. No. Scratch that.

Person of Interest is basically a procedural, but with a unique twist. It’s got a kind of “magical realism” thing going on, except instead of magical it’s sci-fi. Close to reality sci-fi, yes? There’s gotta be a word for that. Anyway, in this procedural, each episode our heroes are given a social security number. The person this number corresponds to is going to be involved in a violent crime sometime soon, but we don’t know whether they’ll be a victim or a perpetrator. So our guys investigate to find out, and then help whoever the good guys are.

Our cast: Michael Emerson (who played Ben on LOST) is the computer hacker / tech guy with a cane. Jim Caviezel (who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ) is the ex-spy, total badass action hero. They’re by far the two most important people here, but they’re not the only ones. We started in the pilot with a corrupt cop who they blackmailed into helping, and soon after a legit cop also joined the team. These days there’s another badass ex-spy regular and a few other randos, but that’s the core group.

I started watching Person of Interest about halfway through the first season at the recommendation of a friend who included a “no, really, keep watching for a while” disclaimer with his tentative praise. His belief, which I have come to absolutely agree with, is that the show is mediocre at best and so bad it’s funny at worst when you look at the details of the thing. But on a macro level, the season long plot arcs and in particular the villain’s gallery on this show is pretty incredible. Like Fringe, there’s a really great mythology being built up here. Unlike Fringe, the mythology here is mostly being built up by the characters and events shown on screen instead of already existing and being uncovered through investigation. Whether that’s better or worse I’ll leave for you to decide, but the end result is pretty similar: friggin cool sci-fi ideas and very entertaining bad guys.

Backing up for a second, I should note that this show very much did take a while to get going. It wasn’t until the very last scene of episode 4 that I really saw potential in the show, that it really had a moment of what I consider to be greatness. Before that it was all… well, let’s look at two choice moments from this week’s episode:

(1) The episode ends with the line “I fear that whatever his organization’s ultimate goals may be, this could be just the beginning.
(2) One of our heroes talks down a murderous gunman out for revenge for his daughter: “Is this how she would want you to honor her memory?”

Those are merely cliches, but I promise you there’s worse dialogue that is outright bad, too. It’s just that the show trained me to stop listening to it a while ago, and I mostly tune it out these days.

Back to the first season: the other moment that made me sit up and take note of the show was episode 7. The team is given the number of a high school teacher living in a bodega down by the docks, and our ex-spy hero has to escort the guy through an emerging gang war ignited by a mysterious figure named Elias. The high school teacher shows up, and it’s Veronica Mars’s dad. “Nooo!” I thought to myself, “Mr. Mars! You’re such a good actor. Can’t you do better than bit parts in mediocre shows?” But aha! At the end of the episode when Mr. Mars is revealed to be Elias, I felt silly and stupid for not catching such an obvious twist earlier. I even called out the superior quality of this week’s guest victim. How could I be so blind? But it’s precisely because the show is so unimpressive on the micro level that Person of Interest has pulled this same trick on me more than once now.

Indeed, it’s not just their supporting cast that knows how to act. Both Ben Linus and Jesus are great, as is basically every other continuing cast member. In an earlier draft of this I started to name names, but I ended up listing every person who’s been in more than one episode. Special shout out to Amy Acker for being especially top notch as always, but seriously. How can a show with such mediocre dialogue have such a great cast? My friend has a theory that the crappy writing is actually a ploy specifically so that savvy people like us lower our standards, making obvious twists like the Mr. Mars one work better.

Anyway, as the first season progressed, more and more villains started popping up. It was a wonder to me that they were able to work them all in - corrupt cops, CIA agents, competing gangs, and the big mystery: how exactly are we getting these numbers? All these things developed through season 1, and many of them even started getting resolved. Elias was put in jail before the season finale despite being the big bad for a substantial part of the season, a bunch of corrupt cops got busted, and evil CIA agents were shot and killed all to make room for the even large pool of baddies introduced in season 2.

As it turns out, the biggest bads in the world of Person of Interest are mysterious rich people hiding behind corporations, shell companies, and fake identities. Information is the real currency of the world, and whoever has it has the real power. This makes sense, because as all these bad guys played by good actors were introduced, we were slowly learning more about the sci-fi part of the world: in a past life, Ben Linus built a machine (referred to as THE machine) for the US government that could process all the data that the Patriot Act and ever-more-pervasive cameras were giving the government access to. Through aggregating that data, it was possible to find terrorists. Obviously such a thing needed to be kept under wraps lest the public outcry destroy all faith in the FBI, CIA, and NSA going forward, and as such the fact that the machine was also detecting more mundane crimes was deemed just that: a side effect. It was too costly, too dangerous to try and prevent these “irrelevant” violent events from occurring, and so they were discarded… that is, until Ben Linus grew a conscience, faked his death, and got Jesus to start helping him. ORIGIN STORY ACTIVATED.

So as season 1 comes to a close, Person of Interest did its most interesting thing yet: it made The Machine into a real character. It’s obvious when you think about it, but again because this show has trained me not to think too hard about it even when I should be, I didn’t see it: The Machine is really an AI, and as a super powerful AI, it was inevitably going to grow and change, adapt and evolve. Serious shit went down, and we ended up with people talking directly to The Machine by standing in Times Square, staring into cameras, and demanding help. Hilarious, brilliant, and perfectly within the world of the show. What a development. It kept the show fresh.

But let’s backtrack again, back to that joke I made a couple paragraphs before about how obviously The Machine needed to be kept a secret lest public outcry bring downfall to the government. Because as we in 2013 now know, PRISM was a thing that happened, and for the most part no one gave a shit. That in itself is terrifying, but like most political issues of the day, I try and repress those thoughts so I don’t end up in politics with a life of hating myself. The more fun to think about is “how does that affect the world of Person of Interest?” It’s supposedly the modern day, so all that stuff still happened. How does the show react? There were a couple interviews with series creator Jonathan Nolan and executive producer Greg Plageman running around after the NSA / PRISM story broke. My favorite is this one from Time Entertainment which says, quote, “[The public’s] indifference about computers having our data puzzles Plageman, who imagines, in his show, much greater public outcry should the existence of the Machine ever be revealed.” and “‘We’re trying to keep the show five minutes in the future but it got out in front of us a little bit,’ says Plageman. ‘It would be interesting if there were ever any organized resistance.’” These guys clearly did their research and knew what was up with our government, or at least what the book writers who were actually paying attention to this stuff thought was up. But the question remains: what now for Person of Interest?

And with all that, we can finally get to this week.

After a lackluster premiere, PoI comes back this week with an episode that started pretty mediocre. I’ll be honest, after the summer my TV habits have adapted Netflix in a way they never had before, and I was questioning whether I’d even keep up with PoI this year if it was just going to be mediocre. I need new surprises, and the first episode and a half hadn’t really delivered any. I’m watching along, and I’m liking what they’re doing with this Life Trace software that can aggregate anyone’s personal data that’s living around on the internet. It’s a much more innocent way to show what the NSA is capable of with all this knowledge in its hands. We just bring it all down to the person-to-person level and scare people that way!

At its heart, I believe this show really is anti-The machine, if that makes sense. Despite our heroes using this near godlike knowledge gained through constant surveillance for good, much of the show is based on the fact that our heroes have to remain hidden from all the people who would use that knowledge for evil: including the governments of the world. It’s really a show about having a conversation about surveillance. How much is okay? What are ethical and unethical ways to use it? How much should we be worried about it? And most importantly, HEY YOU - VIEWER - YOU SHOULD BE AWARE OF THIS STUFF, WHATEVER YOUR OPINION IS.

Anyway, I’m watching this episode. Oh hey, that one silent executive for this company that might license Life Track is pretty good. He hasn’t spoken yet, but I can tell just from that reaction shot of him that he’s got something going on. I bet I see him get a real part on some TV show soon. Oh wait, they gave him lines. I guess that’s cool. Now it’s the end of the episode, and he’s still around and talking! Sweet, way to be a good actor. OH SHIT, he’s a new bad guy? Why can’t I ever see these things coming on this show?

This new baddie - or rather group of baddies, as this guy is just a front for a larger group of people - is a very interesting addition to PoI’s overall conversation. This guy represents people who want to maintain their anonymity. In the speech he gives after he’s shot everyone at the end of the episode, I got the same feeling that I got after watching The Dark Knight Rises and listening to Bane: I kinda dig what this guy is saying. So why is this guy the bad guy? But of course, good guys don’t run around and shoot people to make examples of them or hold all of Gotham captive for months at a time to make some sort of vague political statement. There’s gotta be more to it to that, right?

So here’s where we stand: we’ve got a mysterious group of baddies who want privacy to remain a thing in the world, and are willing to kill to send their message. They’re powerful and they’re badass. Then we’ve got the government, who is spying invasively on every person in the country (maybe even world) and selectively using that information to stop terrorists - but at what cooost? And are they really doing as much as they should be? That’s one conversation.

Then there’s crime lord Elias, back on the streets, because what’s better: capital-O Organized crime with an evil man in charge or rampant chaos (see also: breaking bad and the end of season 4)? Don’t forget our corrupt cops and mayor: are the real villains the Elias’s of the world of the politicians just out for whatever scrap of power they can take?

Add a dash of sweet sci-fi: insane rogue hacker Root (Amy Acker) accounts for the human side of this, but The Machine is still evolving, too…

In the midst of all this stands our heroes, trying to navigate this crazy world they exist in, answer some of these questions, and save as many innocent lives as they can along the way. They’re using the pervasive information network available to them for good, because that’s what’s right. But would it be better to shut down the machine entirely? Or would that be equivalent to murder now that it’s… alive?

Who are the bad guys in this brave new world of near limitless information? Who should we trust with our private lives?

Think about those questions, because they’re important. Take a step back from this fun-and-games TV article for a moment, because these questions really, truly, they are important. However good the writing is week to week, PoI succeeds as a show because it makes you think about those questions whether you want to or not. It’s a public service, and I respect that.

Plus, friggin AI.