Person of Interest isn’t the sole new scripted television show in the Top Five because it’s a gold standard procedural mystery. Or because it’s a terrific grown-up look at living with regret that also finds time to explore post 9-11 hot topics of class and morality in the New Depression.
No. Person of Interest is a Top Five show with 13.5 million viewers because it’s figured out a way to use classic noir style while seeming to do something completely of this moment.
Person stars Michael Emerson, much loved for his work in Lost, as Finch, a Manhattan genius billionaire, and creator of a post 9-11 computer system, “a machine that spies on you very hour of every day,” originally designed to predict terrorist attacks.
When Finch became obsessed with the idea that The Machine should predict regular crimes, the government nixed the idea, and so Finch (somehow) took matters—and The Machine—in his own hands, but then realized he needed a partner in pre-crime enforcement.
He settled on an emotionally cauterized ex-CIA operative: "John Reese" (Jim Caviezel, best known as Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s gore porn movie about the Gospels).
Not much is known about Reese aside from his remarkable military skills, detached affect, and preference for $2,000 Hugo Boss-style high couture suits worn, one assumes, out of habit from his spy days at the height of the Cheney years, killing whomever his CIA superiors order for incomprehensible reasons. The result: Reese is a hollow man, he enjoys nothing, indulges no pleasures, and is without family or friends. Caviezel works his three shades of ever-pained grey with aching, Emmy-worthy precision.
Finch favors suits as well, but more stylish numbers that made me think of recent Gucci, all business but with flair and actual color in them, suggesting a past liveliness long extinguished by . . . we don’t know what.
Like the bird whose species he suggests, Finch is wide-eyed and watchful, but thanks to an unspecified past injury, he cannot turn his head, limps, and lives in his library, alone with The Machine. It’s the most curious of pleasures, watching these true two pros feint and parry as their characters test each others’ boundaries. We all know Emerson’s skill with studied strangeness, but Caviezel has the heavier load: he has to both ‘do’ detachment with a dash of rage and occasionally freight it with the driest of drollery, without compromising Reese’s basic deadpan. Kids, don't try this at home.
Anyway, each week The Machine spits out names. They may be victims or they may be perps. Reese does whatever it takes to save or stop that person: surveillance, fighting, killing if necessary.
Eventually, an NYPD Detective named Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson) joins Finch and Reese in their pre-crime fighting, and voila—it’s the first post-9-11 non-biological family. It takes a while, but as Carter realizes the depths of corruption in her department, she also comes to accept that the man in the striking suits and his friend with the more striking technology are the more effective crime stoppers. The process took time, but Person is all about time.
But so what? Gloomy weirdoes, ex-CIA, mopey cop. How is this really that noir? And why should I care?
The reasons that Person works as noir are intertwined with the reasons you should care. Person limns a version of our world where the shadows are a little deeper, and the debasement of institutions and the people running them are more prevalent.
Another twist is the show’s look, which hop-skips past classic Expressionist chiaroscuro and lands in a New York City Sidney Lumet would recognize, the New York only natives know, which ironically adds a certain exotica to the show. We visit the Queens of kitsch Greek diners, the East Village of fusty Alphabet City coffee shops, of deep Brooklyn storage facilities where you could shoot ten people and nobody would notice for as many days. It’s the opposite of Taxi Driver’s intoxicating filth noir. It’s what's come after Manhattan’s Disney-fication—it’s blah noir.
And corruption festers in the warrens of blah. Corrupt builders, politicians, technocrats, bankers, foster care workers, Wall Street players. An entire section of the NYPD, “the HQ,” is dedicated to facilitating more corruption.
You want mobsters? Person gives you Russian, Hungarian, Polish and Italian post-NAFTA, no-rule-or-regulation mobsters. Arguably worse than them all are the strange, horrible men seen in flashbacks, the monstrous CIA of the Cheney years, who are the source of Reese’s self-loathing and who we see ordering him to commit war crimes like they were going out of business. Which I guess they were. Anyway, the casual, decade-long density of human vileness suggests something James Ellroy would have cooked up.
Even as the show insists on noir’s golden rule—there is no way out—it argues that people have choices, however limited or hard.
In the episode "Cura Te Ipsum," a drug cartel narrative carries us through the soul crisis of a good doctor (Linda Cardellini) going bad. In “Legacy,” a Latina from the projects (April Hernandez-Castillo) trying to escape a lousy past becomes a lawyer representing the wrongfully imprisoned and almost dies for her efforts. Meanwhile, a Ludlum-style spy story powers “Foe,” where a Stasi agent (Alan Dale) who cannot forget ancient slights forces Reese to confront his own bad times.
Repeatedly, relentlessly, as per noir tradition, episodes hinge as much on the memory of bad things as they do on actual crimes. And it comes as no surprise that the show is the creation of Jonathan Nolan, whose short story "Memento Mori" was adapted by his brother Christopher into the surprise reverse-memory noir hit, Memento (2000).
For me, this memory stuff is pure catnip. As I’ve written here at Press Play, the collision of my face with a bus in 1986 caused sufficient brain damage for me to lose memory of a goodly portion of the 90s.
But seeing as we all exist in the rush of time with only memory on our side, Person has as universal a hook as you could want. And as frenzied as Person’s stories may be, the progress of its protagonists is something best engaged with in the long form offered by television, where a twenty-three episode network order allows vastly more observed and organic character growth.
Reese, on occasion, will now share the ghost of a smile. Finch, on the other hand, is processing something—but what?
We still don’t know the real deal about Finch and his relation to Ingram (Brett Cullen), the close friend with whom he created The Machine. We don’t know if Ingram was killed by the government, by one of the people he tried to save, or any number of scenarios argued about with great relish on Person of Interest fan sites.
What we dread is that Finch killed Ingram and picked Reese because he could relate to his guilt. What we hope is that Finch gained his injuries in an explosion that killed Ingram and is in a process of healing a compromised brain.
Meanwhile, Carter’s been saying she trusts Finch. But she hits that note so hard that one wonders if she’s trying to convince herself more than anyone else. Remember: this is still noir, and trust usually comes with a body count.
At its core, Person of Interest is a noir drama that tries to go beyond noir’s limiting darkness while admitting every week the difficulty of healing and redemption, and how almost anything can screw it up. And how you never know when your number’s up. Nowadays, that’s what will have to pass for optimism.
Maybe people tune in because Person is the rare show they can trust not to lie to them.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have printed his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.