Here are three things about procedurals on network television:
1. They are not going away. So there’s no avoiding them.
2. Would you rather have another CSI or another Law & Order or something just different enough to keep you interested? If you voted for CSI or L&O, then you’ve just given up on television as a medium to deliver something interesting or challenging.
3. Good, open-ended, serialized dramas from creative executive producers live very precarious lives on network television. Would you settle for a close-ended story-of-the-week if the storyteller was top notch and the network that aired the show could possibly offer a long, long run?
This is precisely where we are with a series like Person of Interest. It was created by Jonathan Nolan, who wrote The Dark Knight and Memento with brother Christopher, and is executive produced by J.J. Abrams. Those are big, creative names dipping their feet in the relatively tame world of procedurals, where the writing of such a series has become so efficiently good that there’s not many bad ones out there — but no great ones, either. Maybe this duo can change that.
This hope certainly addresses the three questions above. What if really good people could game the system and bypass the creative largesse but relatively low numbers of cable and make something good for a network and compete in a big tent?
Nolan envisioned Person of Interest as a look at post-Sept. 11 surveillance tactics and what was ceded from the individual to the government in the form of privacy issues. The enigmatic Mr. Finch, played by Michael Emerson (Lost), is a billionaire software developer who created “a machine” for the government that sifts through e-mail and cell phone calls to suss out when a crime is going to be committed. But the government was only interested in terrorism, not your everyday murders and such, so they filtered out that available information.
This ate away at Finch, who decided to tweak the machine ever so slightly so that he can get the Social Security numbers of people who are about to be involved in a crime. This, of course, takes the precognition element from Minority Report but lessens the amount of data — Finch doesn’t know if this information the government doesn’t want means someone is about to be the victim of a crime or perpetrate that crime.
All Finch knows is that he wants to stop the crime before it happens, so he enlists the help of John Reese, played by James Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ, The Prisoner), an ex-CIA operative now homeless and adrift in New York, possibly drinking himself to death. Finch knows Reese has the tools he needs — he’s a fighting force who can be there before a crime occurs and stop it. So, after some dancing around it, the two agree to work together.
Now, on the surface, Person of Interest will stop (or not) one would-be crime each week, which fulfills the procedural nature of the show and makes the CBS bosses happy. But the B-storyline — the backstories to both Finch and Reese — can be serialized and explained slowly. One would hope, with Nolan at the helm, that the motivations of each man are complex and not immediately knowable, much less clear-cut.
I think that’s what sets Person of Interest apart — and I normally disdain click-it-closed procedural where all is well in the 59th minute. Emerson and Caviezel are compelling, and the way Nolan and Abrams have constructed the look (lots of noirish far-away shots in crowded streets, a sense of contained doom in an urban city) bodes well. That alone is worth the investment.
But what if Nolan and Abrams can tell a more complex story, one that looks at privacy and paranoia, justice and vengeance? I’d sign up for that. Combine the two elements — mostly rote procedural stories with grander, hidden-agenda storytelling — and you’ve got a TV series you can root for, one that you can hopefully see grow and take chances under the network umbrella.
Airdate 9 p.m. Wednesdays (CBS)
Cast Michael Emerson, James Caviezel
Writer Jonathan Nolan
Producer Margot Lulick
Executive producer J.J. Abrams