In light of the Edward Snowden/NSA scandal, CBS' science fiction series Person
of Interest now more closely resembles a reality show:
While not quite as memorable as "Space... the final frontier," the
series' opening voice over provides a pretty good summary of the premise:
"You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine
that spies on you every hour of every day. I designed the machine to
detect acts of terror, but it sees everything... violent crimes
involving ordinary people. The government considers these people
'irrelevant'. We don't. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret.
You'll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number's up...
we'll find you".
John Reese (Jim Caviezel), a former Green Beret and CIA field officer,
is living as a derelict in New York City after the death of the woman he
loves, and is presumed dead. He is approached by Harold Finch (Michael
Emerson), a reclusive billionaire computer genius who is living under an
assumed identity. Finch explains that after September 11, 2001, he built
a computer system for the government that uses information gleaned from
omnipresent surveillance to predict future terrorist attacks. However,
Finch discovered that the computer was predicting ordinary crimes as
well. The government is not interested in these results, but Finch is
determined to stop the predicted crimes. He hires Reese to conduct
surveillance and intervene as needed, using his repertoire of skills
gained in the military and the CIA. Through a back door built into the
system, Finch receives the Social Security number of someone who will be
involved in an imminent crime, at which point he contacts Reese. Without
knowing what the crime will be, when it will occur, or even if the
person they were alerted to is a victim or perpetrator, Reese and Finch
must try to stop the crime from occurring.
They are helped by NYPD Detectives Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman), a
corrupt officer whom Reese coerces into helping them, and Joss Carter
(Taraji P. Henson), who in early episodes investigates Reese for his
vigilante activities. Although Reese arranges for Carter and Fusco to be
partners in the NYPD early in the first season, neither learns that the
other is also working with Finch and Reese until season two.
Periodically, the team also enlists the aid of Zoe Morgan (Paige Turco),
a professional "fixer" who applies her skills to particularly difficult
tasks. The series features several subplots. One significant story arc
involves "HR", an organization of corrupt NYPD officers in league with
budding mob boss Carl Elias (Enrico Colantoni); in the course of this
arc Fusco is forced to go undercover. Another important storyline
revolves around Root (Amy Acker), a psychopathic female hacker who is
determined to gain access to the Machine; she asserts the device is
actually God, and that she has been summoned by "her."
Ah, The Machine...
The Machine is a mass surveillance computer system programmed to monitor
and analyze data from surveillance cameras, electronic communications,
and audio input throughout the world. From this data, the Machine
accurately predicts violent acts. Under control of the U.S. Government,
its stated purpose is the identification of terrorist and their planned
assaults. However, the Machine detects future violent acts of all kinds,
not just terrorism. Unknown to Finch, his partner, Nathan Ingram,
installed a routine called "Contingency" prior to delivering the system
to the government. The covert software causes the machine to also act on
non-terrorist crime. Finch is appalled that Ingram has the data sent
directly to him. After Finch fails to prevent Ingram's
computer-predicted murder, he further modifies the system so that
"irrelevant" non-terrorism data is transmitted to him in the form of
social security numbers, via coded messages over a public telephone.
Over the course of each episode, the viewer periodically sees events as
a Machine-generated on-screen display of data about a character or
characters: identification, activities, records, and more may be
displayed. The viewer also sees a Machine-generated perspective as it
monitors New York. Commercial flights are outlined by green triangles,
red concentric circles indicate no-fly zones around tall buildings, and
dashed boxes mark individual people. The Machine classifies the people
it watches by color-coding the boxes: white for no threat or an
irrelevant threat; red for perceived threats to the Machine,
red-and-white for individuals predicted to be violent; and yellow for
people who know about the machine, including Finch, Reese, Ingram,
Corwin and Root. The white-boxed "irrelevant threat" targets include the
Persons of Interest that Reese and Finch assist.
As the series progressed, a wider governmental conspiracy emerged. Known
as "The Program", it revolves around the development and utilization of
the Machine. Apparently led by a mysterious figure known only as
"Control", an unnamed official (Jay O. Sanders) from the Office of
Special Counsel begins eliminating key personnel who are aware of the
Machine's existence by deploying teams of Intelligence Support Activity
(ISA) operatives who believe they are acting to eliminate perceived
terrorist threats on the recommendation of a department known as
"Research". The members of the elimination teams are classified by the
Machine using a blue box.
Person's producers have hinted the third season of the hit
series, which moves to a new day and slot (Tuesdays at 10 pm, premiering
on September 24) will attempt to be more, er, science fiction-y. Like
all television shows, Person does have some reality-bending
elements, but the suspension of disbelief level required is remarkably
low. The bad guys are still lousy shots, and the key characters make
miraculous recoveries from concussions, lethal injections and various
forms of physical trauma, often before the show's end credits roll. But
hey, it's episodic broadcast television, right?
Where the show excels is in production values and technical accuracy.
While Mr. Finch's technology boasts features which are a couple software
releases in the future, the indulgences can be forgiven. The show's
cellular phone networks, computers, and other devices work at blinding
speed. But when you have to shoehorn a rich narrative into 40 minutes of
actual episode time, you really don't want to watch systems execute
communication protocol negotiations in real time; trust me.
Particularly impressive is the effort the show puts into elements that
have perhaps a second or two of screen time. Thanks to high definition
and digital video recording, I've been able to freeze frame some of the
monitor shots- and it's obvious these guys have some real-world Unix and
TCP/IP knowledge. A one-second blip of a phony newspaper article reveals
someone actually wrote a faux news story and, apparently, follows The
Other one-hour drama series spend eight days or less to film an episode. Person
of Interest spends nine and a half, with more camera coverage,
extensive location shooting, and substantial post-production work.
They spend money on this show, and it's all up on the screen. The
episodes have a decided theatrical motion picture feel.
So... when planning your television viewing for the upcoming season,
give Person a shot. Like certain other Warner Brothers shows, the
studio hasn't made it available for free, on-demand viewing- you have to
buy the DVDs or download the show from iTunes. Update: During the
third season, the show became available on the CBS website.
Just type CBS Person of Interest into Google and you'll find hundreds of
useful fan sites and video clips from key episodes.
One caveat- the series is produced by J.J. Abrams of Lost fame,
which means there's a chance that at some point the whole thing could
take a sharp turn into stupidity. But, based on the first two seasons,
it's worth the risk.