Person of Interest’s interest in the person

Todd Hertz

CBS’ Person of Interest was a hot show this summer, which is odd since it hasn’t aired a new episode since May 9.

However, when Edward Snowden dropped his bombshell allegations of secret, government data-mining, his story sounded an awful lot like this crime drama, which makes its season-three premiere tonight. In Time magazine, James Poniewozik reminded viewers  “why this all sounded familiar: the real-life Prism program is eerily similar to the machine on Person of Interest.”

Series creator Jonathan Nolan deserves kudos for how accurately he used his story about two men and a machine to extrapolate the possibilities of technological data-mining. Still, despite the buzz, this exploration is not the show’s defining trait, nor the real reason I watch.

On its surface, Person of Interest is the typical, highly accessible, murder-of-the-week procedural. But as its first two seasons have unfolded, the show has revealed itself to be far more serial, mythos-driven and derived from science fiction and comic books. Imagine Criminal Minds as part of the Dark Knight film saga (for which Nolan served as a writer with his brother, director Christopher Nolan), with hints of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Max Headroom and Minority Report.

The story: a bookish, crippled genius (Michael Emerson) hires an unflinching ex-spy (Jim Caviezel) to help him fight crime. Like Batman, Caviezel’s vigilante is known on the streets as “the man in the suit.” The only difference is that his suit is Armani, not rubber. Here’s where it goes all graphic novel/sci-fi: this odd couple stops crimes with the help of the genius’ machine (perhaps comparable to HAL 9000), which mines data to predict crimes before they happen (hello, Minority Report).

And so, in the midst of all the crime solving and cop politics, the show pushes beyond murder cases into cerebral explorations of technology, artificial intelligence, digital privacy and information-age ethics.

The show has taken great interest in what it means to be human - to be broken, flawed and a big messy ball of good and bad.

Still, the show is not called Machines of Interest. Like the most effective science fiction, Person of Interest doesn’t use its story about futuristic concepts and technology to talk about futuristic concepts and technology. It’s about us. And this is why I stay plugged in.

For the show’s first two seasons, it has taken great interest in what it means to be human - to be broken, flawed and a big messy ball of good and bad. Does our flawed nature make us human? Our imperfection? Or something else?

Nearly every regular character on the show shares one trait: they are seeking to get better, to atone for their actions or to change who they used to be. Time and again, the duo debates who really is an innocent and whether someone’s past disqualifies them from being saved by their vigilante justice. Amazingly, this show is an ongoing discussion about depravity and whether actions define the person or the person defines the actions.

A hint to where the show is landing on these questions of humanity and behavior is seen in an ongoing debate between the vigilantes and their chief nemesis. An enemy computer hacker named Root (Amy Acker) relentlessly aims to show that our brokenness is a flaw that can’t be overcome.

We can’t be good, Root says. We’re imperfect. We are “bad code.” And so, she despises humanity in its weakness. But there’s something better, she maintains. Machines are perfect.

The genius, Finch, has been tempted by Root’s thinking. But at the end of last season, he had a realization that cemented his position. When asked what Root means when she calls humans “bad code,” Finch explained: “It means a flawed design. It’s a term that applies to machines. It does not apply to people.”

There is something that separates us from machines and this, the show seems to be saying, is what makes us human. As Finch puts it: “We have the power to change.”

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure