TV review: Person of Interest

A person in a suit and tie stands on a busy street. They are being filmed by someone with a television camera. Wikipedia Commons

A cyberpunk take on the classic genre

by hammad ali, Contributor

If you are a fan of crime dramas and thrillers, you probably know the phrase “person of interest” is how the police refers to any individual that they believe might be related to a crime, victim, or perpetrator. A quick google search these days, though, might get you information about a TV show that went off the air in 2016 after five seasons. This is no accident, given the premise of this show.

Person of Interest, created by Jonathan Nolan (yes, brother to Christopher Nolan), straddles crime drama, thriller, and science fiction. In the very first episode, we meet a reclusive computer programmer called Harold, whose real last name we never find out. If you think that is weird, Harold is seen recruiting a former CIA agent named John Reese, whose real first or last name we never find out. So why does a millionaire tech baron need the services of a former CIA operative?

Turns out, Harold built a “machine” for the government – a software that observes all of the United States through cameras, cellphones, computers, and even credit card transactions. The purpose of this machine is to identify risks of the next terrorist attack, having been ordered on September 12th, 2011. However, the machine identifies all sorts of risks, including ordinary people who are about to become a “person of interest” in some violent crime (i.e. murder). The government only cares about the national level threats, not bothered with why, say, a high school teacher has been identified as a person of interest. Even more interesting, the machine cannot tell if the person is a victim or a perpetrator. Harold, unable to make peace with the fact that all these people too minor for government attention are still going to be involved in crimes, invests his substantial wealth to hire John Reese and start an operation to track down persons of interest daily, and save them from either falling prey to or committing murder.

Given this premise, the show is essentially just a crime thriller for the first two seasons, with the machine giving the protagonists a new name every night at midnight. On their missions, John and Harold make friends in the NYPD in former crooked cop Fusco and model detective Jess Carter. At some point, there is even a second CIA veteran, Shaw, who joins the team. As someone who is always a fan of second layers, the show also begins to tackle issues of free will. If the omniscient machine identified you as a murderer, maybe even more than once, how long can others save you from that destiny? How about if you are the victim?

In the last two seasons, the cyberpunk science fiction angle is more prominent, as a rival artificial intelligence called Samaritan almost destroys the machine and takes over the world. A wonderful subplot involving a terrorist group that wants the right to privacy, even from the government, is also explored. All in all, the ending is bittersweet but satisfactory, and clearly Jonathan Nolan made the decision to quit while ahead. If you love crime dramas, police procedurals, and action, served with just a hint of moral and political debate, this is the show for you.

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