Monday, December 5, 2011

TV Review--Big Brother A Good Guy?

Most of the material on television is unoriginal, formulaic, and derivative (this season is almost equally divided among brilliant lawyers, brilliant doctors, and clever, dedicated cops). Some are revivals of previous TV shows. Of those, most fail immediately--with fun, well-acted exceptions such as Hawaii Five-O. So when something new comes along, it's worth mentioning. I refer to the spy/justice/individual redemption series Person of Interest.

The basic premise is that a computer genius who set up an ultra-sophisticated network for law enforcement that predicted future acts of terror and major violent crimes becomes disenchanted with the "big picture" and wants to go after crimes about to be committed against individuals of no particular national importance. It turns out that his system also detects thousands of potential violent crimes in New York City alone. He is finally pushed out of the shadow agency for obsessing over the crimes that are not being prevented, but not before he has set up a duplicate system in his own "basement."

Although the concept of "pre-crime" was explored much earlier by Philip K. Dick and put (somewhat badly) on the big screen in the movie Minority Report, this is not a ripoff of the Minority Report train of thought. Here, the "hero" is not a cop who is part of a large team of police officers, but instead has left the "cop business" and works to prevent individual violent crimes. A cyber-vigilante, if you will. The genius is played by Michael Emerson, late of Lost. His name is Harold Finch. He is eerily determined, walks with a limp resulting from a spinal injury, and has no particular physical abilities which would allow him to pursue the potential criminals personally.

Finch needs a partner to handle the "street work," and after reviewing as many computer files as he could, comes up with former CIA operative John Reese, played by Jim Caviezel (The Count of Monte Cristo, Passion of the Christ). Reese is a very quiet, unassuming type with an underlying hint of menace and mystery. He can set up clever ruses, put himself in dangerous situations, and exhibit occasional expertise at chop-sockey when called upon to do so. Though the plot is always set up by Finch's obsession and genius, most of the action in the show revolves around Reese carrying out the physical parts of the plan.

Each episode revolves around a single potential crime, but the ongoing relationship between Finch and Reese is the leitmotif which holds the series together. Additional regular characters of note are the police detective played by Taraji Henson and a dirty cop played by Kevin Chapman.

NYPD Detective Carter (Henson) is drawn into the plan at varying stages by the two main characters, but has no idea who they are, what they are up to, and considers whoever they are to be [pre] vigilantes. She is determined to run "him" down, not even knowing that there are two men doing the work she is blocked from doing by police rules and regulations and constitutional restraints.

Dirty cop Fusco (Chapman) actually interacts with Reese, but not by choice. Reese has Fusco's entire record of illegal activity, payoffs, and participation in criminal conspiracies (one of which resulted in a murder). Reese uses Fusco to get inside NYPD information and files and occasionally uses him as a Judas goat to trap the bad guy(s). Fusco works under Detective Carter, but Reese has made sure that Fusco will never inform Carter of his existence.

The show's tagline is "ever feel like you're being watched?" In the case of this show, you are. Each episode gives a brief explanation for why Finch has chosen a particular crime to prevent. Reese usually sees his point, but occasionally can't fathom why Finch has chosen that crime to prevent. The growing trust between the two is emphasized when Reese simply takes it on faith that Finch has chosen the crime for good reason. The two meet to discuss the crimes, but aren't traditional partners. Finch won't tell Reese where he lives or where his sophisticated computers are located. As of a recent episode, Reese has decided on the neighborhood Finch lives in because they most often meet at one particular restaurant.

Unlike the CSI's, the fact that Finch has state-of-the-art computer programs that often seem silly and improbable on CSI becomes believable in Person of Interest because Finch is a computer genius who would reasonably be expected to have equipment almost nobody else has. Finch has, of course, tapped into the public/law enforcement networks as well. There will always be one or two shots taken from hidden cameras and closed-circuit police cameras in each episode, identifying either the scene of the crime or the potential victim. Sometimes both. So far, all the actions take place in New York City and environs. That will probably hold because of the huge population of NYC and Finch's limited mobility.

If you find that scenario interesting, you should probably watch the show as it unfolds. First, the relationship between Finch and Reese is vital, and without seeing it develop, it will be hard to know what is going on if you come in too late (much like Lost). Second, the whiz-bang technology Finch uses could be old hat two or three years from now, given how quickly publicly-available technology advances.

And then there's the "Big Brother" thing. We are in an era in which individual rights and privacy are in apparent conflict with the need for information to fend off terrorist acts. Anyone who doesn't have an occasional bout of paranoia is not thinking about how much of his or her personal information, private communication and correspondence is subject to snooping by the government and clever private parties. Person of Interest smartly does not try to resolve that conflict. It simply uses it as a plot device and leaves the viewer to decide whether what Finch and Reese are doing is right or wrong.


Unknown said...

Good show and well thought out...I concur with your analysis.

T-Rav said...

LawHawk, I haven't seen as much of this show as I'd planned, but I have watched parts of several episodes, and I've enjoyed it. I don't think it's spectacular, necessarily, but it's nice to see a show with a halfway original concept. And the fact that it's starring Michael Emerson is just awesome.

Individualist said...


Sounds like an interesting premise for a show.

Will have to check it out.

Unknown said...

Scott: I was actually surprised how much I liked it. I thought it would go all techno on us, but it didn't. The tech is the foundation for the story, then it gets out of the way. There's a whole lot more technobabble and technoimpossibility in shows that are supposed to be dramas.

Unknown said...

T-Rav: I think that's part of its charm. It isn't spectacular, but simply solid. Emerson and Caviezel work very well with each other.

StanH said...

Cool show. However my wife and I missed the first episode...drag man.

Unknown said...

Indi: Give it a shot. I think you'll enjoy it. I already described the basic premise and the growing relationship between the two main characters, so it's not too late to pick up the momentum.

Unknown said...

Stan: It's too bad you missed that first episode, but it wasn't so all-encompassing that you've miss out on what's happening by not having seen it. You'll no doubt be able to catch it in re-runs. I expect this one to last and go into a second season.

AndrewPrice said...

I haven't seen it. Cop shows aren't my thing.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen it but it's been on my radar. I imagine the crime-fighting duo of Ben Linus and Jesus would make for an entertaining combination. :-)

But I find myself agreeing with Andrew - cop shows aren't really my thing either. However, I've been known to leave a C.S.I. rerun on as background noise once in a blue moon, or pull up an old Dragnet episode on Hulu. And I do applaud the makers of Persons of Interest for doing something even slightly different.

Incidentally, there was one cop show pilot that was shot but not picked up for the current TV season and I was actually looking forward to it: 17th Precinct, which would've been a police procedural set in a world where magic and the supernatural were real.

Unknown said...

Andrew: It's really not a cop show at all. The only cops that show up are the ones trying to figure out what the main characters are up to.

Unknown said...

ScottDS: As I mentioned to Andrew, this isn't a cop show. It's a mystery drama that centers around private individuals using technology to fend off possible crimes. Since there is actually no crime to investigate, the drama becomes far more complicated than your typical cop show.

rlaWTX said...

Scott - that sounds like a cool concept... as popular as the paranormal is in fiction, it kinda surprises me that no one has gone there on TV (except True Blood, which I have not seen but I think is badly casted because the actors do not match the pic in my head). The closest would be Eureka/Warehouse 13 but their "magic" is all science or power + science.

Unknown said...

rlaWTX: Without commenting on their quality, I can say that two recent offerings already put the paranormal into the crime and medical drama genres: Ghost Whisperer and A Gifted Man. The silly series with a resurrected lawyer and a guardian angel called Drop Dead Diva added the law genre. As for the paranormal in a "cop" show, I loved Moonlight and was sorry to see it canceled.

As they say, there's nothing new under the sun, but the concepts can be handled either very well or very poorly. ScottDS's mention of Precinct 17, with magic and the supernatural would have been fun, but it would still have had to be executed well to work. And I might as well add I like Warehouse 13, but its quality is all over the place.

tryanmax said...

I've only managed to catch one episode of Person of Interest since learning it wasn't just another cop show and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I can't say that I would go out of my way not to miss an episode and I probably won't go back further than Hulu takes me, but it's good enough to sit down with on a quiet evening (a rarity for a single father of two toddlers).

The thing that sets Person apart from other shows which I like is that it splits the brains from the brawn. I am so sick of these shows where the hero is a quantum-physicist and also a black belt. I do realize that such people do exist, but probably not in the numbers that TV makes it seem. Most of us aren't tough guys or geniuses, so if we are to relate to the hero at all, he best be not more than one or the other.

I think a similar approach is part of what makes Fringe work, though they still split the difference with the Peter Bishop character.

As to supernatural shows, this season produced Grimm and Once Upon a Time, both of which I had looked forward to, both of which totally let me down. I've been consoling myself by watching Twin Peaks on Netflix. I was just a kid when it was on, so it's new to me!

Unknown said...

tryanmax: I think that you pretty much nailed it. The show is not spectacular, but it is steady, always interesting, and rarely lets the viewer down. It's just a good show that doesn't use "guest stars" to increase its ratings or over-engineered stunts to get attention.

I like Grimm and Once Upon A Time well enough to watch them if there's nothing else on. But like you, I'm not crazy about them, so they're often on just as background noise.

tryanmax said...

Also, Peter Bishop isn't an ├╝bermensch. Unlike other shows, his knowledge is limited to his particular field. And he can be beat up.

I was watching Iron Man 2 recently and I remember being quite put off by Vanko. It seems the writers decided that since he was an expert in one technical field, he should be an expert in every technical field--and still have time to be a beefed up bad-ass. Did he learn how to hack while he was sitting for his tattoos? Because if he did, there would have certainly been enough time.

* * *

Couple of asides:

1. We routinely break into lamentations about the lack of strong female roles, so I thought I'd point out that Olivia Dunham on Fringe is pretty powerful in a realistic way. (I'm sure feminists can still find something to pick at.)

2. I think Sam Rockwell stole the show in IM2. He's so good at playing characters that deserve to be punched in the face that I would go see a movie just because he is in it.

Unknown said...

tryanmax: I haven't watched Fringe as often as I intend. It seems to get moved around for no apparent reason on our local station. But I agree on your points. Particularly with the mistake so often made of deciding that a genius in one scientific field must automatically be a genius in every field.

As for Sam Rockwell, I think he steals every scene in everything he's ever been in. He does everything well--from slapstick comedy to menacing drama. And he definitely doesn't do it on his pretty face. LOL

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