Person Of Interest and the Paranoia of the Digital Age

Back when the networks began promoting their new fall series, one of the upcoming shows that intrigued me was Person Of Interest, which stars Lost’s Michael Emerson and Jim Caviezel, best known for The Passion Of The Christ. And why wouldn’t it look interesting? Who wouldn’t want to see Benjamin Linus and Jesus teaming up to prevent crimes?

Person Of Interest, which airs on Thursday nights on CBS, has become one of a handful of new series that are appointment television for me. It’s remarkably different from most of today’s procedural shows — “He’s a psychic who solves crimes!” “They’re police partners who had a one night stand!” “Ghosts tell her who killed them and how to find the evidence!” — that its grittiness is downright refreshing.

The program’s premise is clever: eccentric software genius Harold Finch (Emerson) develops a system for the government that detects acts of terrorism before they occur, only to discover that it also spits out information related to other violent crimes. Finch teams up with former CIA operative John Reese (Caviezel) to put an end to these crimes before they take place. Always on their tails is NYPD Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson), who attempts to get to the bottom of these acts of what could be called pre-vigilante justice.

In the capable hands of creator/executive producer Jonathan Nolan (brother and writing partner of mind-blowing filmmaker Christopher Nolan) and executive producer J. J. Abrams (mastermind behind Lost), Person Of Interest has a uniquely gritty feel. The show’s New York City is hazily lit and teeming with potential victims and perpetrators. The writers do an excellent job peeling back layers of the characters’ back stories. It’s a thoughtfully written program, with a genuine poignance to each episode. Emerson plays the creepy mastermind like no one else can, Caviezel is pitch-perfect at the strong, silent type, and Henson portrays Detective Carter with ease and authority.

After only a few episodes, Person Of Interest can rightly be called fascinating and innovative television. As a matter of fact, we’ve already seen here at PJ Lifestyle how the show has upended some of the typical portrayals of men and women when it comes to crime. It is also a truly modern phenomenon, playing on a type of paranoia that has been heightened over the last decade: the fear of a government looking over its citizens with prying eyes.

Concern over a spying, overreaching government is nothing new: George Orwell infamously wrote of Big Brother watching us in his masterpiece 1984. And who can forget Rockwell’s hit song from 1984 where he proclaimed, “I always feel like somebody’s watching me”? In our post-9/11, post-Patriot Act world, the idea of the government digging into our private lives seems more real than ever before, and Person Of Interest is largely built around that fear. In fact, the show’s tagline — “Ever feel like you’re being watched?” — plays directly to that paranoia.

On the show, scenes are inter-cut with bumper footage that appears to be from security cameras throughout the city. Clearly these shots are meant to represent the fictional software put in place to help the government ferret out terrorists, and Finch and Reese use these same cameras to prevent violent crimes.

Each episode opens with Finch contacting Reese to discuss a name that has emerged from the software program. They use the same methods that Finch developed for the government to investigate and prevent the crime before it’s too late. It’s easy to see from the resources the two men have at their disposal how people could fear a spying, prying government.

Another completely timely aspect of Person Of Interest is the use of up-to-the-minute technology. Though it would be misguided to suggest that the series is lacking in heart due to its reliance on technology, that very technology gives the program its unique angle. It goes without saying that Finch, as designer of the software that sets the show in motion, would have the latest and greatest equipment at his disposal. He employs technology like a second instinct, allowing him to be in the right place at the right time.

Reese uses Finch’s handiwork to listen in on phone calls, intercept text messages, and take impossibly clear cell phone photos of those he follows. The team relies on satellite tracking and the network of hidden cameras to discover when and where a crime is going to take place. Technology is more than just a neat plot device on Person Of Interest — it’s almost a character all its own.

OK, so we may look back in a decade or two and regard Person Of Interest as quaint and dated. But the truth is that the show is indicative of life in the second decade of the 21st century in its own way. Person Of Interest stands at the confluence of two totally modern phenomena: technology at the front and center of nearly everyone’s lives and the fear of being watched — whether by the government or well-meaning, mysterious figures who act for justice. This is a series that seems tailor made for 2011, and perhaps that’s why it’s so fascinating to watch.