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If you’ve decided to take the first steps with CBS’ new primetime drama Person of Interest, you can’t be blamed. For one thing, the track record of J.J. Abrams’ name and his company Bad Robot have been stellar, especially if you forget about last year’s Undercovers. With the creator of Alias, Lost and Fringe involved, you can’t help but be interested. Throw in Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher and co-writer of The Dark Knight and The Prestige, and things really get interesting.
I don’t mean to do CBS marketing for them, but damn. That set the bar high, a bar that the pilot doesn’t achieve, but the series certainly could.
With a high-concept action thriller best described as The Bourne Identity meets Enemy of the State meets Early Edition, it’s not all that surprising that Person of Interest, from a storytelling perspective, came a bit shakily out of the gate. Nolan opted to get all the explanatory exposition writing out of the way first, quite the exact opposite approach of, say, Lost. The move should pay off in the long term as from here on out the show can just get down to business, but it resulted in an overstuffed pilot to say the least.
The show centers on future crime prevention, a sci-fi take on the typical mystery primetime programming of today. The mysterious Finch (Michael Emerson) has created a computer that uses all manner of the government’s surveillance and wire-tapping technology to generate Social Security numbers of people who in the near future who will either perpetrate or be the victim of a crime. All he gets is the SSN, the rest must be solved like any mystery. Knowing his limitations, he recruits a deadly ex-CIA agent (James Caviezel) to follow the people tied to those SSNs and stop the crime from happening.
After a successful run on the TV mini-series remake of The Prisoner, Caviezel tries the small screen a second time as Reese, who has all the typical trappings of someone ex-CIA and highly skilled: mysterious past, lost his soul mate, kind of quiet etc. Yet in spite of the cliché, he gives you exactly what you want. I was a big fan of his turn in The Count of Monte Cristo in 2002 and seeing him as a shaggy-bearded hobo at the beginning of this episode brought that back instantly, as does his highly unique voice. He delivers the sharp bad-ass lines with an expert calm and it makes you forget how many other action heroes have been written the same exact way.
The same can be said about Emerson’s character, Finch. He’s this powerful enigma that offers Reese a sense of purpose and tries to recruit him without being the least bit forthright until the end of the episode. Emerson has shown with Lost that he can be excellent as a powerful character who holds his cards close to his chest, Emmy-winning excellent in fact. Despite explaining a lot so that we get the gist of the show, the pilot leaves much of his character a mystery; all we know is he, like Reese, is motivated by loss. He also walks with a bad limp, so presumably there’s a big reveal somewhere down the line.
Things move fast in this pilot to cram it all in. Somehow in one episode we learn enough about who Reese and Finch are, see Finch recruit Reese despite Reese’s reluctance and watch the two work their first case together. Those first two pieces get the most attention while the first case gets majorly short-changed.
The machine generates the name of a prosecuting attorney, a woman named Diane Hanson (Natalie Zea) whose latest case might put her in harm’s way as it appears the man she’s trying is being framed by a powerful gang. Within no time at all, Reese has tapped her cell phone and started lining up suspects. This whole plot moves at breakneck speed, expecting you to follow along, perhaps misjudging the capacity of its audience to ingest all this brand new information at once. It’s like fitting an entire episode of C.S.I or Law & Order into 20 minutes, with the other 22 introducing you to all the characters at the same time. When given a full 42 in future episodes, it should be much more enjoyable.
The pilot also showcased some of the better TV-appropriate violence I’ve seen. Reese is an unbeatable force akin to Jason Bourne minus the shaky cam and his trademark is shooting every single person in the leg or rendering them immobile with whatever's at his disposal, often times his hands. Director David Semel delivers on the action end to say the least and the action scenes had a proper tinge of originality to them.
As for other cast members, Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson gets minimal time in the pilot as a detective on the lookout for some incredibly skilled “killer,” which sets her up to be on Reese’s tail throughout the season. No indication, however, as to how well she’ll be utilized.
More interesting could be character actor Kevin Chapman as Det. Fusco. Seemingly a guest appearance as part of the first case as a dirty cop, he got brought in for the long haul thanks to some well-written cunning delivered expertly by Caviezel. Fusco stands to be Reese’s reluctant contact/informant in the police department long term, which should be a fun dynamic.
The concept of backwards crime solving certainly holds promise if infused with regular bouts of action, the question is how will the show balance the week-to-week structure of a case each week with a more seasonal structure that involves the characters evolving throughout the entire season. Caviezel and Emerson can only sharpen so much explanatory dialogue with their skills. Knowing Abrams and Nolan, the show should hopefully never lean too hard on the “case of the week” routine, but ratings will have the final say.