Continuing our series of TV shows you need to see, it’s CBS’s Person of Interest.
We can all thank American cable channels like HBO, AMC and Showtime for the quality serialised storytelling that is currently capturing the imaginations of audiences the world over. In response, the free-to-air networks have stepped up their game and they are now creating their own interesting shows, some of which rival their subscription-only contemporaries. Person of Interest, which is now available on Netflix, bridges the gap between episodic network television and the serialisation of cable, and is all the stronger for it.
Person of Interest’s focus isthe surveillance state, the rise of corporatism and the dangers of unchecked technological advancement
Like many procedurals, Person of Interest has a gimmick to tie the show together, but boy is it a doozy. Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) is a computer genius who built an artificial intelligence for the US government which he calls The Machine. Wired up to the global surveillance net, The Machine predicts acts of terrorism before they happen, allowing the government to swoop in and neutralise the threat. Realising the horrific implications of what he has built, Finch hijacks the system to use it as a force for good. He rigs The Machine to provide him with the information on persons of interest, only he does not know if they will be a victim or a perpetrator until the investigation is well underway.
Every week Finch and ex-CIA operative John Reese (Jim Caviezel) – who also has his own dark past – traverse the streets of New York City, meting out their unique brand of vigilante justice. Produced by JJ Abrams and Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher and co-writer of The Dark Knight), Person of Interest does initially come off like a cop show with a twist. In the show’s first season it behaves much like a Law & Order spin-off, but slowly, through flashbacks, we not only get a clearer sense of who these men are, but of the myriad dark forces they are actually up against; the surveillance state, the rise of corporatism and the dangers of unchecked technological advancement.
Person of Interest proceeds to have a conversation with the audience about how our current climate of fear is completely misdirected. If there is a status quo of constant surveillance, where do we go from there? Once one line has been crossed, there is no reason not to cross them all. This is a very real danger for Finch and Reese, who exist right on the cusp of this dilemma, and which is personified in the recurring villains they face across the three seasons of the show so far.
If there is a status quo of constant surveillance, where do we go from there? This is a very real danger for Finch and Reese
There is the ever-present threat of the government agency that uses The Machine with the intention for which it was built: to track down and neutralise threats before they happen. They are portrayed as a single-minded yet compartmentalised beast forever surging forward to protect the freedom of the people, yet never managing to achieve anything other than plugging holes which just open up again elsewhere. Then there is Vigilance, a group of anti-surveillance pro-privacy activists who are led by a man driven down a path of vigilantism because the government destroyed his brother’s life.
Vigilance begins its mission from a belief in patriotic justice, until they descend into acts of domestic terrorism and eventually discover that their origins are not as patriotic as they first thought. Then there is Decima Technologies, whose director, John Greer (John Nolan), believes that artificial intelligence is the future of mankind, but in the sense that any sufficiently advanced AI will eventually become self-aware and subjugate the human race. By developing his own rival version of The Machine, called Samaritan, he hopes to put himself in the position to bring about this inevitability sooner rather than later.
Read more: It’s Time You Watched Elementary
This triumvirate of antagonists highlight obstacles the human race will need to overcome in the future. Technological advancement is moving so quickly to the point where we are almost struggling to keep up both socially and politically. What good does it do us as a species if we can develop an artificial intelligence when we still exist in a climate of fear and paranoia? What would we unleash on ourselves? Perhaps Greer is right and the AI will indeed take control and steer humanity toward a life of servitude that we probably deserve.
A utopian ideal is what drives the heroes in Person of Interest. It’s a morally grey world where we trust people less and less
In this respect, Finch and Reese fall on the side of the angels. They find themselves in the position of divine protectors who know the human race has the capacity for good if only given the chance, and if we can avoid the pitfalls and the traps, we can emerge in the future as a technologically and socially advanced species. Finch purposefully removed the higher functions of The Machine to hit the pause button on its otherwise inevitable evolution and instead uses it as a tool to aid humanity to rise to the same level where we can both exist in parallel, not in opposition.
This utopian ideal is what drives the heroes in Person of Interest. It’s a morally grey world where not only do we trust people less and less, but where we are also finding that the institutions we have trusted in the past are now creating a future where they, not the individual, are the beneficiaries. It is up to Finch, Reese and their growing list of allies to redress this balance and reclaim the future, one person at a time.
Read more: It’s Time You Watched The Newsroom
All images: CBS