Person of Interest has now strayed so far from it’s original episodic procedural formula that it’s nigh-on unrecognisable, and I couldn’t be happier about it – this show is filmic in ways other’s aren’t even coming close to. I’m not sure how much input the Nolan brothers have at this stage in production, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their fingerprints are still reasonably fresh. The latest episode (Series 4, Episode 11) is hands-down one of the best hours of television from recent years, paying off seasons of character and plot development for regular viewers, and yet accessible enough for most casual watchers to have a great time with.
Part of its accessibility comes from kicking off each episode with its own version of Marvels ‘While attending a demonstration in radiology, student PETER PARKER was bitten by a spider, yadda yadda…’ in voice-over. Simple and effective, and something I’m astonished more shows don’t make use of. It’s far less obtrusive than having to drop huge swathes of exposition into the first ten minutes of each episode to bring new viewers up to date. We’re up to season 4 now and there’s plenty of story under the bridge, but recently it really feels like Person of Interest has found its rhythm. The cast has been refined, we’ve dropped the mysteries and suspicious back-stories that are de-rigueur for the first couple of seasons of any new show, and the writers have hit that blend of characterisation, plotting and wit that made Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing so popular.
At this point in the continuity of the show we’re into full-on sci-fi territory; two super-computer Artificial Intelligence’s are waging a secret war and utilising all the resources, human and technological, that they can bring to bear. The protagonists are essentially meat puppets for one (The Machine) and the other (Samaritan) is run by (or is running… the lines are blurred) the government. The set-up for this weeks episode is pretty straightforward – our protagonists need to stop the bad AI from de-stabilising the global economy. (For reasons. Plot reasons. Ah, go watch the show, I don’t have space to explain). Luckily, they have a macguffin that will do exactly that. The only problem is that it needs to be hard-wired into a heavily guarded building (I think it’s the Stock Exchange, but it’s so irrelevant to the actually plot I couldn’t say for sure). So we’ve got a heist/suicide run/capture-the-flag scenario that has engineered the need for the whole team to storm the building, raising the stakes nicely by putting them all at equal risk.
It’s testament to how well the writers have built the cast; that they feel like a carefully crafted RPG party, each bringing their own unique set of skills to the table, and making them all essential to the completion of the mission. The actors themselves deserve equal praise, Jim Caviezel slumming it slightly, but clearly enjoying himself as ex-CIA agent John Reese, and the excellent Michael Emerson, fresh from Lost (in which he was arguably the breakout star) as Harold Finch (creator of the original AI program), surprisingly sticking with the small screen rather than transitioning to Hollywood. The more recent addition of Sarah Shahi and Amy Acker (a genre stalwart with long runs on Angel, Alias and Dollhouse, and appearances on Supernatural, Grimm, Once Upon a Time, Warehouse 13 and Agents of SHIELD on her CV) as the double act of Sameen Shaw and Samantha ‘Root’ Groves is also great fun, played as a flattened affect sociopath and a hypersexualised psychopath respectively.
Another unique aspect of Person of Interest is its use of simulated Closed Circuit camera angles and graphic overlays, presented as the Artificial Intelligence point of view. These have always been handled incredibly well, and rather than consisting of dummy CGI nonsense, they’re utilised as another expository device, presenting us with useful contextual information relating to the plot and characters, and combined with restrained use of flashbacks, saving us from pages of unnecessary scripted exposition. The flashbacks themselves are also presented as an aspect of the AI point of view, displayed as recorded electronic databank ‘memories’, being accessed on occasions relevant to the current situation, making sense within both the context of the episodes, and as further backstory for the viewers.
This episode takes this unique camera point of view to its natural conclusion. Following a fantastic, filmic slow-motion sequence during a shoot-out, we track back in the ‘mind’ of the machine to Harold Finch teaching the adolescent computer brain to play chess, explaining the nigh-infinite range of potential extrapolated outcomes and permutations within each game. Flashing back to the present, we watch the principals choose and follow one course of action, but failing disastrously and fatally. Luckily, from the point of the shoot-out and the heavy handed chess metaphor, we’ve been watching a computer simulation in the mind of the machine, running scenario after scenario seeking the most preferential course of action. This is an inspired device for exploring the character relationships in a range of situations without having to commit to changing the carefully balanced status-quo. They take time to have some fun with more alternate time-line extrapolations, each killing off the cast in a variety of nasty ways, before setting them on a preferred , real-life, (though still suicidal) course of action.
As the machine plays through these scenarios, the writers take a step back, breaking through the fourth wall and making a meta examination of their scripting process for the main cast. Time is running out, so we see the AI simplify its last simulation, reducing the characters to ciphers of themselves, spouting the equivalent to first draft sketches of their standard dialogue…
Root: ‘Overly affectionate greeting’
Root: ‘Transparent rationale for conversation’
Shaw: ‘Annoyed attempt to deflect subtext’
Root: ‘Overt come on’
Shaw: ‘Mildly embarrassed defensiveness, bordering on hostility’
It’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s cool… this is a show that’s had time and care spent on it, and both taken and been given the opportunity to grow in to something bigger than its initial concept. It’s running head and shoulders above most other broadcast television, not for nothing having the fastest growing drama ratings from the 2011 season through 2014. I’ve said it before, but if you enjoy genre television, and aren’t watching Person of Interest, you’re missing out.
‘Playfully witty sign-off’. Indeed.