There are many great stories to be found nowadays in the realm of television. I have already written about Game of Thrones, which has made a huge impact on popular culture. Today, however, I’d like to turn our attention to another excellent but lesser known show, Person of Interest on CBS. I think it is somewhat overlooked, despite being a perfect example of an intriguing and engaging show that reflects intelligently upon the state of the modern world in which we live.
It is disguised within the shell of a typical procedural-crime drama, but it quickly tosses that overdone genre aside, in favor of science-fiction elements. I hesitate to fully call it science fiction: it is not futuristic, fantastic, or strange, as we come to expect from the genre, but it more often than not is grounded deeply in the realities of our world.
The central premise is that after 9/11, the US government creates a secret program to monitor electronic communications and spy on its own citizens, in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks. This, of course, we now know is true, but at the time of the show’s premiere, we did not yet know about PRISM, and so, this idea was created from the mindset of speculative fiction, but has disturbingly turned into reality following the leaks of Edward Snowden.
Here is where the science-fiction elements come in: this program uses a powerful artificial intelligence called The Machine to monitor communications, and it is actually successful in thwarting terrorism, unlike PRISM. It is in fact able to prevent violent crimes of all sorts, even those unrelated to terrorism, but the government only tries to stop the terrorist events, as those are relevant to national security and are political expedient; everyone else is considered irrelevant.
Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), the brilliant computer programmer who created the Machine, refuses to let these other people die, and so, he hires ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) to help him rescue those whom the government would ignore. Provided with the social security numbers of potential victims or perpetrators, our protagonists investigate in each episode another person of interest and attempt to thwart another violent crime. That, at least, is the basic concept, but the show gradually expands to deal with more nuanced and complex issues.
The main issue is the conflict between privacy and security. At first, Person of Interest seems to support the security end of the spectrum, for Finch and Reese manage to successfully save many victims of violent crimes; the government actually thwarts a significant number of terrorist plots. But at the same time, those with the proper legal authority to protect us–the government and the police–are often depicted on this show as corrupt abusers of power, who misuse their positions for their own advantage.
Our two protagonists try to act morally in saving people, yet they themselves as vigilantes have little respect for the law. NYPD Detective Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson), who embodies the moral aspect of the law, ends up caught between her corrupt fellow cops and the vigilantism (but for a good cause!) of Reese and Finch. In the traditional “mafia”-figure of crime boss Elias (Enrico Colantoni), we see another moral system based on the old ideals of honor and vengeance, which conflict against the morality of Reese and Finch, as well as the lawful thinking of Carter, yet all these characters are forced to find common ground as allies. And in Detective Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman), we see a corrupt cop who is able to find redemption and ultimately become a “good” cop, proving that these divisions can be crossed and change is possible.
Person of Interest, then, does not come down hard on any one side, but grants multiple perspectives to the issue: there is more than one definition regarding what is “right.” When it comes to our protection, it offers a nuanced answer: it is ultimately possible to earn security, but the apparatus which gives it to us must be treated with a healthy dose of suspicion, for there always exists the risk of power being abused. This is the hard lesson learned by Sam Shaw (Sarah Shahi), a government operative who joins Finch’s group after being betrayed by her own agency.
But we cannot discuss this show without thinking about AIs. In a series of wonderful flashbacks, we see Finch struggling to teach his burgeoning artificial intelligence about morality and about what it means to have empathy for those it wishes to protect. The problem is, of course, whether a computer can truly think as a human can, whether we can trust turning over our security to a being which is utterly unlike us. Already we are on the cusp of this technology, and right now we are already wondering if we have entrusted too much power to our devices, from something as simple as social media to machines as dangerous as drones armed with missiles.
This is what makes Person of Interest an exciting show, as it presents artificial intelligence not as a potential issue for the future, but as a problem which we must consider now, in 2015, given how reliant we are on computers, how “religiously” we check our phones for updates every few seconds. In the context of this show, religion too is just as significant as technology, for what will be the result when AIs become so powerful as to be godlike to us humans?
Enter Root (Amy Acker), the complex character introduced to us as a psychopathic contract-killer/hacker with a fanatic interest in the Machine. She believes it (or Her, as she calls it) is the next-phase in evolution, that it is a near-omniscient being with almost godlike power. She becomes its devoted follower, willing to do everything that it commands, yet stunningly, it gradually teaches her what it has learned from Finch: a sense of morality, that human life has a sanctity about it that must be preserved. Eventually, she puts aside her violent past to become a valuable ally to our protagonists.
This is an example of the Machine as a “good deity,” if we can really call it that; it has a certain protective morality that uplifts and improves the humans who look to it for guidance and security. But is it fair to look toward a piece of technology with the type of faith reserved for religions?
In any event, the Machine is generally a good and moral “character”–again, if we can call it that. It is only the interfering human elements–the government agencies, etc.–that cause problems… except, as Finch says, humans necessarily must be involved, lest the AI take matters into its own hands and decide on its own who should live and die.
We see the dark side of this when the powerful corporation Decima, led by businessman Greer (John Nolan), successfully attains the support of the US government in launching another AI, Samaritan, which does not have the same limitations as the Machine. (Of course, the influence of corporations on the government rears its ugly head here as well.) Without the moral guidance of Finch, Samaritan is amoral, willing to kill to achieve its goals; it does not designate persons of interest to investigate, but deviants to be eliminated. Not only that, but it grants the government complete access of its targets’ electronic data to an invasive level that the Machine does not.
Speaking of which, the Machine monitors all communications but only hands out SSNs, so that the human agents involved do not see the private information of the persons of interest; no one person has full access to the Machine’s store of data, which is the best compromise Finch could find between handing over our privacy to the government and maintaining our civil liberties. In addition, it does not even say whether the person is a victim or perpetrator, meaning that proper investigation and the judgement of a human–not an AI–are always required; the other benefit, of course, is dramatic tension, as we try to figure out why this person’s SSN has come up. Even as we admire Finch’s commitment to preventing abuse of this system–both by AIs and humans–we cannot help but feel uneasy at the power which comes from access to our private information.
In the end, Person of Interest offers a grim, frightening view of a world in which we may already be living, where powerful artificial intelligences rule our lives, with us blissfully unaware of the the degree to which we are being subtly controlled by technology. It is science-“fiction”… but it is highly plausible. In terms of entertainment, it offers witty banter, exciting car chases and shoot-outs, and an almost comic-book like sense of action, but so too does it offer deep consideration of issues essential to understanding the modern world of technology.
The only criticism I would have is the slow pace of the show, as it takes while for these serious issues to really emerge, which may be off-putting to some. Do not be too alarmed by this, because this relaxed movement towards the revelation of deeper significance is what allows us to explore the full complexity of these issues, instead of being forced to move on too quickly.
For more on Person of Interest, I suggest this article from the New Yorker.