Sometimes, you just sort of miss an entire television series, then hear about it slightly after it has concluded from two different sources and decide to try it out. Person of Interest (CBS, 2011-2016) escaped my attention entirely until I came across an article calling it “essential science fiction television.” Shortly afterward, my friend Kevin asked me if I’d seen it. It looked intriguing, so I gave it a try.
Person of Interest is certainly essential science fiction television. It’s a well-written, character-driven show that starts out (as many shows do) as a relatively standard procedural before evolving into something much more challenging. In the process, it presents and develops a number of complex ideas about artificial intelligence and its implications. The show combines good storytelling with thought-provoking content in a way that is sometimes difficult to find on television but is a good example of how effective television can be as a medium.
In its first season, as many have observed, the show is already good, though still relatively ordinary. Its premise is the comfortable old people-with-a-secret-weapon-fight-crime-from-the-sidelines one that governs so many procedurals, not to mention so many superhero narratives. In fact, in its first season, POI is a superhero story in all but name, with ex-CIA operative John Reese recruited by mysterious billionaire Harold Finch to prevent crimes before they happen. The preventative nature of Reese and Finch’s work is the show’s first twist; the second is that Finch is getting his information about these potential future crimes from an AI of his own invention he calls only “the Machine.” He and a partner made the Machine for the US government, which uses it to prevent terrorist attacks. However, as it monitors everyone everywhere, it also detects “irrelevant” future crimes involving (as the narration at the beginning of every episode puts it) “ordinary people.” The government dismisses these people. Finch, who has, unbeknownst to the government, retained access to the Machine, does not. The Machine provides him with only their social security numbers, not indicating whether the “person of interest” is a potential victim or a potential perpetrator. Reese and Finch must help or stop the people of interest while avoiding the attention of a corrupt police department and, more particularly, Detective Joss Carter, one of the few good cops remaining. They also often call on the reluctant help of dirty cop Lionel Fusco, whom Reese has blackmailed into being his inside man.
The first season is, again, already solid, but with every subsequent season, things get more interesting. Carter eventually joins the team, and Fusco begins what will be a long journey to redemption and true investment in his new role of helping people; in the meantime, new players turn up, such as assassin/computer genius Samantha “Root” Groves, seemingly sociopathic Agent Sameen Shaw (who deals with the relevant numbers until she is betrayed by her employer), and an adorable attack dog named Bear with whom every character falls instantly in love. Characters who start off as antagonists end up drawn into the team, which becomes an intriguing collection of broken people fighting in frustrating secrecy to save the world. However, it’s the introduction of a rival AI, Samaritan, that truly tips the show over from “good procedural” to “holy crap, this is some great science fiction.” The Machine, coached by the compassionate Finch, has picked up morality along the way; Samaritan, with no such coaching, sees humanity as something to be “saved” through control, not compassion. POI gradually becomes a meditation on the nature of humanity and morality, control and free will, love and sacrifice, all wrapped up in a suspenseful TV-friendly package.
In my opinion, the best episode is Season 4’s “If–Then–Else,” which I won’t describe because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. It’s one of those television episodes — like, for instance, House, MD‘s “Three Stories,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Body,” and Doctor Who‘s “Blink” — that is simply a work of art in and of itself, an episode that is, plot-, theme-, and character-wise, a perfect storm of narrative effectiveness. Other episodes contain similarly powerful material, but “If–Then–Else” is fantastic from beginning to end.
If you haven’t come across this show yet but are interested in AI-themed stories that play with post-9/11 paranoia and its consequences, Person of Interest is worth trying out. One of its greatest strengths is also one of its greatest seeming contradictions: it tells the story of an AI far more intelligent than any human being by focusing not directly on the Machine itself but on the flawed humans it is working so hard to save without ever having been given a voice of its own.