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Rajiv Naresh Headshot

TV Review: The Vigilante and the Panopticon

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Ten days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a show premiered on CBS. Scripted by Jonathan Nolan and produced by J.J. Abrams, Person of Interest is a show that attempts to chronicle the paranoia of a post-9/11 world. A mysterious billionaire named Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson) develops a surveillance system that is programmed to detect terrorist threats in New York City. However, the machine was programmed to eliminate ostensibly "irrelevant" criminal activity affecting ordinary people. Realizing the potential to prevent several domestic crimes, Finch builds a backdoor into the system that acquires all the irrelevant data. He hires an ex-CIA field operative John Reese (Jim Cavieziel) to assist him in his endeavour to prevent crime. According to CBS, the show received the highest test ratings of any drama pilot in the last 15 years. However it has received tepid responses from critics.

At the outset, there are a multitude of reasons why you should watch the show. It's scripted by the man who is either fully or partly responsible for films like The Prestige, Memento, and the much-awaited The Dark Knight Rises. The protagonist duo of Emerson and Caveziel does sound promising. The central premise of a city-wide panopticon that is constantly watching you puts the paranoia of a city whose wounds are still bleeding into great perspective. The visuals of a network of interlinked cameras watching your every move are decidedly cool and definitely warrant praise.

What I particularly liked about the show was that unlike shows that have come out in the recent past (Boardwalk Empire, Boss, Hell on Wheels), Person of Interest manages to particularise the general. It reduces its scope and focuses on individuals in comparison to the ambitious scale of many recent shows. The judge, the war veteran, the doctor, the district attorney: regular people's problems (with the necessary hyperbole) become the centre of every episode. There's an underlying semiotic that governs the choice of people who are each episode's person of interest. There's a sense that Nolan is putting the State on trial, exposing how there's a hierarchy and a monopoly in the dispensation of justice.

To combat this you need a combination of a rogue vigilante and a billionaire with a conscience. This is probably where the show tends to stutter a bit. There's some lacklustre acting on Caveziel's part that seems to be borne out of his attempt to create a steely persona. Furthermore, there are embarrassing attempts at creating chemistry between Emerson and Caveziel in the form of highly unsubtle humour that tends to, more often than not, fall flat on its face. In some sense, the criticism that is being levelled is probably predicated on our heightened expectations that seem to remain unfulfilled. The fundamental conceit of the show is innovative and original, but some episodes remain just barely above average.

Interesting to note is how Nolan unabashedly interweaves his politics into the narrative. A memorable scene in one episode ("Mission Creep") is when Reese and a Marine who has just returned from Iraq (also the episode's person of interest) have a conversation about how they've come home to an America where there is no joy in the civilian life. The Marine blames it all on the bankers who have stolen everybody's money, to the visible anger of two suit-clad Wall-Street types who are nearby. The bankers try and argue about how this is a knowledge economy, and this ends with them being clobbered by Reese and the Marine. This motif of the deplorable nexuses that govern our world is consistently explored, albeit with varying emphasis.

Overall, the show has its moments. Its fatal flaw is probably that it manages to unwittingly release the grip it has on you at the wrong instant, and sometimes never manages to regain the same intensity. Nevertheless, it undoubtedly captures the paranoia and the discourse of security that govern our lives today. It definitely has an internal semiotic and politics that question the establishment, which is refreshing for primetime television. There's some disappointing acting and attempts at camaraderie that bring the show down. The narrative sets you up for high drama and then just falls short of succeeding. Undoubtedly, this is said while working within an exceedingly narrow margin of error. The show is good, but just not great.

I'd say watch Person of Interest. It's a show that makes an audacious attempt at characterising and contextualising the nuances of living in a post-9/11 era. Its narrative is often engaging, and it definitely tends to ask questions and debunk assumptions in its own way. Critically speaking, there are flaws and unrealised expectations. However, it's still a good show, and you should still give it a chance.