Annalee Newitz — For months, we’ve been wondering about Person of Interest, the new show coming in fall from JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions. Starring Michael Emerson (Ben on Lost) and Jim Caviezel as “interested third parties” who try to stop crimes before they happen, the show seemed like it could go a lot of ways. Would it involve spooky precognition stuff, time travel, or some other quirk that wasn’t fantastical at all? The answer turned out to be a lot more interesting than I was expecting, and left me thinking this show could ramp up into awesomeness if it doesn’t get bogged down in its “crime of the week” format.
Reese (Caviezel) is a former special agent with a mysterious past. After losing the woman he loved, he’s gone on a serious downhill spiral, eventually winding up homeless and perma-drunk in New York City. As the pilot begins, we see him attacked on a subway by a bunch of thugs who think they’re going to have some fun messing with a helpless bum. When they find themselves on the hard end of Reese’s badassery stick, Reese is brought in for questioning. A cool detective who I hope will become an ongoing character looks into his past, trying to figure out why this homeless guy was able to mop up the subway floor with five guys. But before she can learn much more than “he’s been involved in a lot of shady government murder stuff,” he’s swept out of prison and into a waiting limo populated by the mysterious Mr. Finch (Emerson, at his mystical, twitchy best).
Apparently Finch has been watching Reese for a while, and has decided to bring him in on a strange project he’s doing with a bunch of cash he made . . . somewhere. “I’m a very private person,” he explains. He’s somehow able to figure out when people are likely to be in danger, and wants Reese to come in and be the muscle who saves the lives of these “people of interest.” Why does he pick Reese? Well, for one thing, Reese is totally badass — a fighter and investigator rolled into one. And for another thing, most people believe that Finch and Reese are dead. So they can operate very much below the radar.
In the first episode, they shadow a public defender whom Finch things will be the occasion for a violent crime. He’s not sure if she’ll be victim or perpetrator, though. After a lot of shenanigans that at some points barely make any sense at all (hey, it’s a pilot), Reese solves the case and saves the relevant people (while putting other relevant people in jail). It’s a bit too neat, but that’s OK because the real eye-popper in this pilot is when we finally find out how Finch knows all that he does.
Apparently Finch designed the legendary “total information awareness” (TIA) system that John Poindexter had promised he’d create in the wake of 9/11. TIA would be a computer system that could comb through every piece of surveillance data in real time, tipping agents off when it found likely terrorism suspects. Though TIA never got off the ground in real life, in Person of Interest, it did — thanks entirely to Finch. He’s created “the machine,” which is basically a super giant server farm that’s constantly crunching data from CCTVs and every other form of surveillance. And it can predict with alarming accuracy where terrorism is likely to erupt next. But it can also do something unexpected: Predict other kinds of crimes that have nothing to do with national security. Like ordinary people being murdered. The machine began spitting out the social security numbers of people in danger from non-terrorist violence. Finch programmed the machine to delete all these “irrelevant” crime leads until his conscience started to eat him. He began to worry about all those “lost numbers” (hello, strange hat tip to Lost).
So Finch built a backdoor into the machine, which allows him to collect the lost numbers. And with Reese’s help he may be able to get to their owners in time to stop the violence. To prevent, as he cheesily puts it, people from losing their lovers the way Reese did. We can believe the hook would work on Reese, who is fed up with using his special powers in the service of the government. And Finch is awesomely mysterious enough that we’ll believe almost anything about him if he’ll just stay on screen a little longer.
I absolutely love the premise of this show. I’m totally hooked on the idea that crime-fighting vigilantes would sneak into TIA-like computer systems in order to use surveillance for the powers of good. It’s a terrific twist on surveillance paranoia. But I’m not yet convinced that this show can take this idea and run with it. It could easily get bogged down in “crime of the week,” with the machine and its weird implications becoming little more than a post-9/11 version of Charlie’s Angels‘ black box, telling the girls where to fight bad guys every week. If this show can live up to its premise, I predict that we’ll all be glued to the set every week. Here’s hoping!