Each Friday, we recommend an older television series that is binge-worthy. Ideally, it's a series that didn't get the attention it deserved while it was originally airing.
This week's pick is "Person Of Interest," a technology-oriented crime drama that aired on CBS for five seasons from 2011 to 2016. The entire 103-episode run is available on Netflix.
You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know, because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people; people like you. Crimes the government considered 'irrelevant'. They wouldn't act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. 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.
— Season one opening voice-over by Harold Finch
A number of television shows over the years have been described as "before their time," but "Person of Interest" is a television series that rightfully deserves the compliment. Early episodes played out like a slightly more clever CBS procedural, but by the end of season one it was evolving into a complex and nuanced dissection of the dangers of technology, even when it's presumed to be being used for the good of society. It also focused a lot on a seemingly simple question: how much would you give up in order to feel safe?
In the series, Michael Emerson portrayed a reclusive billionaire computer programmer named Harold Finch. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, he had built a supercomputer for the government that sucked in data from everything from security cameras to the smallest database in an effort to predict future terrorist activity. Nicknamed "The Machine," his creation turned out to be very effective at its task. So much so that it began also predicting the perpetrators and victims of premeditated deadly crimes that had no terrorist connection. That data was being deleted off of the machine at the end of each day, but Finch created a back door that provided him with the social security number of someone who was in danger (or sometimes the person who was dangerous).
When Finch left the government, he recruited a washed-up former Special Forces soldier and CIA operative named John Reese (played by Jim Caviezel) to investigate and hopefully prevent these non-terrorism related crimes. And the first portion of season one followed that general outline, with "Person Of Interest" primarily being a very clever crime-of-the-week procedural. As the season progresses, the core cast expanded to include NYPD Detective Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman), a formerly-corrupt officer who is persuaded to help Finch and Reese. Taraji P. Henson also joined as Detective Jocelyn "Joss" Carter, who begins investigating the string of injuries and deaths left behind by Reese. Amy Acker also made her first appearances as the mysterious hacker "Root," who is determined to get access to The Machine.
By midway through season one, "Person Of Interest" began juggling a growing number of connected plots, from battling a powerful police department organization nicknamed "H.R." to the Russian Mob and a powerful local boss named Carl Elias. It was all intertwined together with the recurring "let's save this mysterious victim sent to us by the machine," weekly story and while it was impressive storytelling, in the second season the show went all-in with a much more complex overall story arc that lasted through the rest of the show's five season run.
While Harold and his merry band were trying to save a few individual lives, The Machine worked on. There were battles for control of the data and efforts to expand its surveillance capabilities in ways that would make Terminator's Skynet envious. And without giving away too much, a secretive governmental group created a rival to the machine and the battle between digital good and evil was the center of the second half of the series. Familiar characters were killed off, others developed unexpected relationships and by the time you get to the jarring series finale, you realize that you've been watching an exceptionally thoughtful and nuanced drama series. It feels ripped out of the pages of today's latest tech magazine, although if "Person Of Interest" has a fault, it's that it probably wasn't pessimistic enough about humanity's willingness to trade personal freedom and privacy for a feeling of safety and ignorant bliss.
There are a lot of individual aspects of the show that are worth highlighting. The show regularly showed events from the point of view of The Machine, with scene transitions framed as video feeds of surveillance camera footage and satellite imagery. The show relied on regular flashbacks, which over the seasons filled in a lot of the backstory of the rise of The Machine. In many cases, the Machine was shown reviewing past recordings in real time. It was a nice workaround to take care of the need to add context to the core storyline and the style of the flashbacks fit the overall machine overlord feel of the series.
And "Person Of Interest" had a cast that was uniformly excellent. Sarah Shahi joined the series as Sameen Shaw in season two as an assassin who initially worked against the team. Shahi is an actress who consistently manages to wring everything out of a character and her evolution over her four seasons was impressive. And the ensemble of recurring actors was equally strong, from Enrico Colantoni as crimeboss Carl Elias to Paige Turco as Zoe Morgan. And of course, Emerson, Caviezel, Chapman, Acker and Henson all gave performances that would most actors would consider to be career highpoints.
But what really sets "Person Of Interest" apart from its contemporary dramas is its willingness to engage in an examination of the forces that even in 2019 work to drive people apart. Technology can be wonderful, but the line between order and chaos is even more difficult to determine in a world where there are few secrets, except for the ones held by the powerful and the connected. "Person Of Interest" might have been a show before its time. But it's even more relevant in 2019 than it was in 2011.
The full series run of "Person Of Interest" is available for streaming now on Netflix.