Person of Interest: CBS’ Crime Prevention Procedural Is The Fall’s Best New Drama!

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Person of Interest [Thursdays, 10/9C] is produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot [Alias, Lost, Fringe] and created by Jonathan Nolan [Memento, The Dark Knight]. What could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, very little.

Person of Interest opens with a group of young punks accosting a bum on a train – but this bum is Reese [Jim Caviezel], an ex-CIA operative long thought to be dead. Reese against the four punks isn’t is even close to being a fair fight.

When the police take them to the precinct, they are questioned by Detective Carter [Taraji P. Henson]. Meanwhile, Reese has come to the station and is calmly sitting outside the interrogation room. After talking to the punks, she proceeds to ask him a few questions, getting not much by way of answers – though she gets his fingerprints from a plastic he used to get a drink of water.

By the time Carter discovers that his fingerprints have appeared at a number of crime scenes around the world, he’s gone – thanks to a lawyer who mysteriously appears on his behalf. In return, all he has to do is speak with the man’s employer – Mr. Finch [Michael Emerson], a short, slightly twitchy fellow with a limp and a unique proposition: help prevent violent crimes from happening!

Finch points out a lady at a coffee wagon – Diane Hanson [Natalie Zea] – and tells Reese that whatever the potential crime may be, Hanson is part of it. Reese figures she’s just someone who ticked Finch off [like an ex-wife], so Finch is forced to use extraordinary measures to persuade him – beginning with telling him all about himself and building from there.

Reese quickly discovers that whatever is going to happen involves crooked cops and young black high school kid. There’s some technology involved in that, but nothing quite as cool as the way Finch learns about who is to be affected by future crimes.

After 9/11, the government wanted a system that would tie in to every camera, computer and phone in the country. Finch built it. What he didn’t foresee was that the system not only picked up on major terrorist activity, it also tracked lesser – but no less evil – crimes. Because that wasn’t what the system was for, he had to make it sort out terrorist activities, labeled [relevant’] and everything else [labeled ‘irrelevant’]. Each night, at midnight, all irrelevant files would be deleted.

Finch built a back door into the system – in case the government ever began to overstep its bounds – and, at some point, he determined to print off the social security numbers of those about to be involved in those ‘irrelevant’ crimes. We are given an oblique reference as to why he did that, but Finch is ‘a very private person,’ so we may or may not learn more about that.

If you strip away the glitz and flash of the Minority Report, you might get something like Person of Interest. It may seem a bit over the top in terms of its primary conceit, but Nolan does a good job of making a case for such a use of modern technology – indeed, he’s merely expanding on things that are already happening, technology that already exists.

What that means is that there’s a certain basis for paranoia that is being exploited in the struggle to identify crimes and their perpetrators or victims before anything happens. That results in a series will likely be unnerving at times – especially since Finch and Reese can never know in advance whether the person whose social security number comes up is the victim or the criminal [or possibly a witness].

The universality of Finch’s system is referred to through interstitial/bumper shots composed of mosaics caught by various cameras and phones and collapsed into an ever increasing pattern that can be dizzying.

The plot of the series premiere sets up the rules of the game/ the show’s internal logic, and then proceeds to build drama based on those rules/that logic. Emerson’s Finch is the idea man whose work has led to this; Caviezel’s Reese is the grounding that makes it all believable. Both are superb in their roles.

Henson is solid ad Detective Carter, but she doesn’t have much to do in the premiere so I’m guessing that her role will build as her investigation into Reese does.

Another series regular who first appears as one of the crooked cops, is Detective Fusco [Kevin Chapman], and his recruitment by Reese is both unusual and witty.

Person of Interest is the best new drama this fall. It’s a smart, witty, and unexpected take on the procedural format. It’s also joined the handful of shows that I will watch in real time every week.

Final Grade: A+