On the Person of Interest

We’re two episodes into J.J. Abrams’ newest speculative fiction mystery, Person of Interest, and it clearly has broad appeal.

Perhaps it’s the draw of J.J. Abrams himself, but the pilot was wildely popular, bringing in the best pilot ratings in over a decade for CBS. With the second episode only tapering off a bit, it’s cleart fans have decided to stick around to solve the mystery.

One thing is for sure, it’s not what many of us expected.

First, it’s tough to say if it even qualifies as science fiction. It certainly has the speculative element, but that element is not played up nearly as much as I thought it would be, and the ‘mystery’ of the show (we all knew there would be a mysterious subplot, this is Abrams, afterall), is not in the speculative element, that was all cleared up in these first two episodes.

The premise is fairly clear. Post 9/11, the government asked Mr. Finch, this story’s version of Bill Gates – a genius computer software engineer with vast resources – to build them a terrorist finding computer.

The huge super computer taps into the governments new wiretapping and surveillance network – much more extensive than is technologically possible (this is where the sci-fi stuff starts). The program works, and right away, the computer begins to help foil potentially disastrous terror plots against the US, but it has a side-effect, it also generates a list of people who will be involved – either as victims or perpetrators – in less major crimes, like murder. 

So, there is no mystery in the machine. The protagonist of the show, John, is hired by Mr. Finch to investigate these not-yet-crimes and stop them from happening. John is qualified for this through a supernatural level of excellent government special-ops training.

And here’s where the mysteries of the show actually begin. John and Mr. Finch, we discover early on, are both officially deceased. What happened to each of them between 11 Sept 2001 and today is being slowly revealed by a mechanic that LOST fans will surely be familiar with: the thematically appropriate flashback.

These flashbacks are introed and outroed, much like many of the other scenes in the show, with surveillance camera footage, which fits the themes of the show well, and gives the whole thing a very big-brother feel, almost like someone higher up is using the surveillance equipment to watch the story unfold.

The show as a whole taps into that part of our brains that knows that there are things in the world bigger than each of us, grand conspiracies and grander heroes, especially in our post 9/11 social consciousness. It’s certainly not the first show to attempt to capitalize on our mass paranoia, but it’s the first one to do it right, to show the surveillance and paranoia of the age in a heroic light.

Big Brother’s tools are being used to save us from everyday bad guys on the street, and the man who is doing it feels like the best kind of vigilante. He’s tortured by a terrible past which is still foggy to the audience, and his skills, non-lethal methods, and access to vast resources make him a sort of Batman figure, just without the cape and cowl.

Essentially, the show combines sci-fi with the crime procedural, super spy, and superhero genres to create a show which is very broadly appealing. I don’t expect it to go anywhere any time soon.

New episodes of Person of Interest run Thursday nights on CBS.