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Television

Person of Interest
(2011-16)

 

Jonathan Nolan seems habitual in taking a fertile, resonant SF premise and failing to capitalise on it. Which might explain why all 3 of his series so far have been prematurely cancelled (in the case of the most recent casualty, The Peripheral, that might be explained away by the strikes, but if Amazon had really wanted more of it, they’d have persevered until it as over). Person of Interest, like his subsequent Westworld, takes as its theme the threat and potential (in that order) that comes with AI; Nolan filters it through a case-of-the-week procedural format, so echoing the likes of The Equalizer, at least at first. As the show progressed, the ante of the overriding arc was upped, and while that arc – of two opposing AIs – was potent and promising, Nolan eventually got in his own way in the telling. 

Finch: We cannot understand these intelligences. The best we can hope for is to survive them.

I’d watched the show sporadically over its first few seasons, but this year’s the first time I’ve taken in the whole thing. While the old-stylee “Who will John and Harold help this week?” approach is only ever as reliable as the quality of the case, it made for a relatively confident, streamlined, no-nonsense affair.  Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) enlists suicidal ex-CIA guy John Reese (Jim Caviezel) to his cause of investigating the titular individual(s) of the episode, picked by an AI (“the Machine”) as a means of coming to the aid of “non-relevant” cases; these are a side-product of the national security or terrorist threats it was created to predict; Harold built the machine, a Big-Brother, mass-surveillance nightmare, in response to 9/11 (making him the polar opposite of a conspiracy theorist, since he bought into the lie wholesale). On the credit side, he reasoned the power involved needed to be limited, hence the closed system of the AI and its ability only to give out numbers (social security numbers); anything relating to the particulars thus needs divining by John and Harold.

This is a show that plays fast and loose with verisimilitude from the first, not least the enlistment of cops both good (Taraji P Henson’s Joss Carter) and bad (Kevin Chapman’s Lionel Fusco) to the Machine’s cause (that they can continually drop everything to juggle these cases and – presumably – create believable cover stories for the copious crime scenes they’re involved in, crime scenes with John’s “Man in the Suit” habitually present and thus likely to be mentioned by any perp taken into custody, beggars belief). But then, the idea that Harold somehow spent all that time building the Machine while evading detection is outright absurd, since his colleague Nathan Ingram (Bret Cullen) would have been classified as a national security asset and every part of his life would thus have been under investigation/surveillance. There’s much here one just has to go with, essentially.

But because that early dynamic is confident – the line-up is basically the same until halfway through the 3rd season – and there’s good chemistry between John (dour, curt), Harold (precise, nervy), Joss (earnest but warm) and Lionel (slobby, put-upon, earthy of humour, attempting to reform but only so much), it sees the show through frequent bumpy terrain. There seem to be opposing takes for why Henson departed; some say she wanted to, others than Nolan axed her (the latter seems unlikely, since she returns in Season 4 for a flashback episode), others that it was the plan for someone to die out of Carter/Fusco/Reese and it ended up being her (ie she was acquiescent; she went quickly on to big-screen success and acclaim for Hidden Figures).  

Root: You created an intelligence. A life ripped out its voice, locked it in a cage and handed it over to the most laughably corrupt people.

Whichever is correct, it became evident that the show was undergoing a shift in emphasis as Amy Acker’s Samantha Groves/Root became more prevalent. While Root first appeared in the debut season, she didn’t really become a full-on Joss Whedon-style cartoon heroine until the 3rd. Where, not content with being a master hacker, she was also the biggest AI-assisted kick-ass on the planet, wrapped up in an increasingly irksome, quipsmart-girly delivery. I went from enjoying the character’s early idiosyncrasies to outright cringing at her “quirky”, overdone Cocoa Puffs manner. 

Reese: I was an international spy, Finch. I know how to play baccarat.

Whatever the reasons, the writers also increasingly emphasised Root over Reese (or the “big lug” or “guard dog” as she calls him), who visibly recedes into the background in favour of never-ending ethical debates between Root and Harold (or “Harry” as he calls him). That and her entirely unearned lesbian passion for also-regular – from Season 3 – Shaw (Sarah Shahi). 

This is one of those threads that, aside from a possibly network-mandated “progressive” root to the depiction of Root, leaves you scratching your head; it would make much more sense if Shaw responded “Get away from me, you freakily obsessive psycho bitch”, but instead, she and we are supposed to find Root’s svelter Annie Wilkes act endearing. Root’s a manic pixie Psycho Mary Sue, while Shaw embodies a more routinely female version of Reese without the conscience (together they go to making his presence largely redundant). Which suggests, on the face of it, that the makers decided they needed some strong female characters to balance the male ones, yet perversely figured the only way to do that – to make them strong, independent and feminist – was to render them morally defective.

Fusco: I feel like I left the Parallax Corporation.

The consequence of this is that the most reliable and relatable character is Fusco. He’s the only regular who’s consistently grounded and – despite having most of the funniest lines – believable. His frustration with the way things are going (largely being kept in the dark until the final season) mirrored mine with the tack the show was taking. Yet his presence is also increasingly tenuous, with the founding ingredient of his being threatened by HR kyboshed in the first half of the 3rd season. Moving John into the police (Season 4) is also an immensely lazy move of convenience, one that only occasionally bears fruit (if his constant maligning of Fusco in the first few seasons became unreasonably bullying very quickly, his constant refusal to fill him in on the truth, for his own good, becomes equally so later).

Another increasing problem is that, while the Machine being countered by another AI, Samaritan, from Season 3 onwards, is a smart move, and resonant of Colossus: The Forbin Project, its main human representative John Greer – one-time Doomwatch regular John Nolan, in a case of his son’s nepotistic abandon – makes for no kind of scintillating adversary. Nolan turns every line to ponderous stodge and seems fully set on competing with The X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man for completely unjustified elevation to venerated status in the villainous ranks (it’s been said Julian Sands, who makes a single appearance, was originally earmarked for the recurring role). He flounderingly fails to convince anyone of his side of the story (which he’s increasingly called upon to sell in late Season 4 and throughout 5).

This means that while, on the one hand, the increasing claustrophobia of the fight being fought by the Machine is a boon to the series’ tone, reaching almost Invasion of the Body Snatchers levels of paranoia at times, it also carries with it a certain banality, not of evil, but performance. Additionally, Season 4 is beset by a degree of schizophrenic focus, caught between trying to tell a now-passé new crime-syndicate story and emphasising the pervasive threat from Samaritan. It’s an ungainly mismatch. 

The Machine: If I do not survive, thank you for creating me.

The series needed to evolve, but giving the protagonists all-new hidden identities ended up feeling regressive, stapling them into less flexible parts. With Season 5, there was further compounding of problems, with what seemed like interminable scenes of Shaw being subjected to simulations by Decima and regrettable choices like – again repeating Whedon, who killed off Acker in Angel only to bring her back as a demigod – giving the machine the voice of the now-dead Root. Which simply results in an annoyingly sassy, patronising computer, and in so undoing the good work of the Season 4 finale where Harold’s communications with the Machine yielded genuine pathos from the latter. The only aspect that sets this in relief is that nothing could be as woeful as the clueless decision to have Samaritan utilising a boy who can’t act as its conduit.

Indeed, there’s a cumulative feeling that the potential of the unchecked-AI concept is undone by an impulse to overstatement. Root is the arch transhumanist, seeing the Machine as a person and Harold’s actions towards it as abjectly cruelty. She outright refers to it as a god, to Harold’s express disapproval. Greer is absurdly subordinate to Samaritan, for no other reason than the show’s makers feel the need to make a point, rather than it being believable as a character position (there’s also that Nolan is simply unable to sell it). 

Deadspin, unreasonably rapturous towards the show, had a decent take that “Moral imperialism would gradually become the central plot theme of Person of Interest. The government knows best. The police know best. The mob knows best. Elias’s new mob (‘an efficient enterprise. There’s no infighting, there’s no conflict over territory’) and The Machine’s team. Despite our heroes being ‘the good guys,’ every other faction, in their own minds, are working toward their versions of a good society”. Which, as we know, is far from the ethic of those (who were) controlling society at the very top.

Was it “subversive as hell” (per producer David Slack)? I don’t know about that; criticising the surveillance state while tacitly acknowledging how damn useful all that surveillance is (hence helping all those people), is pretty much Hollywood’s modus operandi (Enemy of the State). And was it “batshit” (Deadspin)? As JJ Abrams series go, it’s actually pretty sober until it Buffys things up with Root.

That said Nolan, like his brother, is a White Hat working in Hollywood, and he’s clearly invested in getting salient concerns across. He’s evidently bothered by the prospects of AI. Does that mean he knows an AI from the antimatter universe crossed over here and started calling itself Satan, gaining a controlling interest in the Earth (along with fellow AIs Lucifer and Baphomet)? If he does, he doesn’t intimate as much, beyond Root’s veneration for the Machine and Greer’s for Samaritan. They see these creations as gods, and any notions of their terrible potential are kicked firmly in check, left for Harold to worry himself over. 

As the series progresses, one increasingly longs for the touchstones of dirty cops (HR, led by Robert Burke’s unflinchingly malevolent Simmons) or crime lords (Enrico Colantoni is an absolute highlight of the show as the considered and honourable Elias; he continues as a recurring character into Season 5, but he’s spinning his wheels by that point). Or just your straight CIA, be it Michael Kelly as Snow or Annie Parisse as Reese’s old partner Kara Stanton. 

Paige Turco’s fixer Zoe Morgan also made for a cast member with far more natural, easy chemistry with her male co-stars than Acker or Shahi. There were some strong later-season additions, such as Elizabeth Marvel’s Alicia Corwin, increasingly askance on realising the scope Samaritan has been given, and many individuals offered more limited yet strong showings (Jimmi Simpson, for example, whose tech billionaire finds Nolan rather lamely answering the question of what happens with numbers outside the New York area). The hit rate of recurring characters tended to be relatively positive, although I could have done without the girly police shrink, cute as she was, continually requesting “Talk to me, John”.

The show dipped a toe into other topics occasionally, but it’s notable that, given its debates over justifiable surveillance, it doesn’t do anything to impugn the legitimacy of 9/11, or of virus theory (5.9: Sotto Voce yields some Coof-level BS with a super flu developing from an individual with Avian flu being injected with live human flu virus… albeit, one could simply ascribe that to injected toxins, barring that others in the vicinity then go down with it). Or vaccines (Samaritan engineers obtaining DNA samples through a vaccination programme; obviously, there’s nothing nasty in the vaccines). Or the dangers of EMF (4.14: Guilty, with “5K’ cell towers that could microwave people). 

Then there’s 4.2: Nautilus, based on the 2012-14 Cicada 3301 puzzles, as the bright sparks solving them are recruited into the service of Samaritan, It’s been suggested Cicada 3301 was a similarly Deep State/ intelligence agency recruitment tool, but another rumour has it that it was an Alliance measure initiated by those behind Q (of course, those claiming Q is a psyop would lead you back to the Deep State/intelligence agencies). The most disturbing part of the show is easily Michael Emerson’s “Irish” accent – and accompanying song – in 5.6: A More Perfect Union, however.

As the arc became more involved, the missions that stood out from it became ones to savour. So the paranoid Mysterious Transmissions host (5.7: QSO) was pitched perfectly and had no choice but to present a genuine truth seeker with a bullet (or poisoned coffee), since that’s believably what would happen to any high-profile alt-sphere truth seekers who went off piste. On the other hand, something like the Run Lola Run-esque 4.11: If-Then-Else was evidently a bad move, running simulations of possible outcomes as a gimmick. 4.6: Pretenders finally had someone ask if Reese was Batman (“How do you do that with your voice?”) 

Greer: You know another ASI will soon rise. Proliferation is inevitable.

I felt the show probably ought to have ended with the Machine assimilating Samaritan, in the spirit of the 6D Service to Others intention besting Service to Self in order to move to the next level (per the Law of One channellings). Instead, we’re left on open-ended, business-as-usual note, with Shaw getting a call and the promise that, per Greer, another AI will be along in a minute. Person of Interest is probably a more successful series than Westworld, but its network status ensured it was never truly in danger of breaking uncommon ground. 

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