I submit for your consideration a television show called Person of Interest, which ended its 5-season run last week. A show I initially had thoroughly modest expectations of, it became one of my all-time favourites. You may not have seen it (because the ratings were never great), but if you’re the sort of person who reads this blog I’m going to suggest you probably should have. In hope that some of you will now go check it out, I’m going to try very hard not to spoil too much as I write a little about it today.
I understand why people didn’t necessarily jump on board. I gave it a shot because there is a dearth of entertaining SFF-y programming on TV and it looked like it might be diverting, although the premise wasn’t the most exciting. It’s basically this – after 9/11, the US government bought a computer system that monitors every camera, every microphone, every email, every damned thing in search of data that lets it predict terrorist threats. (At first it seems like this might ‘just’ be in the US, but we soon learn that it’s the entire planet.) It also predicts other kinds of crimes, but the government considers these irrelevant and ignores them. The guy who designed the system does not, and receives the identities of people (in the form of their SIN number) who are about to become the focii of violent crimes, in time to prevent them. He’s not an action sort of dude though, so he hires an ex-CIA operative to do the actual preventing. Sometimes the number is the perpetrator of the crime, sometimes it is the target.
This sounded like the procedure-iest procedure show that would ever procedure. Each week they’d get a number, have a case to solve, most of the time the number would be the target, and every so often there would be the SURPRISE TWIST of it being the perpetrator instead. I mean, you could make a show like that and probably do all right with it. But that’s not what the creators of Person of Interest had in mind.
There were (initially) lots of shows about individual numbers and their cases, but very quickly the show demonstrated that it wanted to get into deeper questions about surveillance in society, and about artificial intelligence and the ethics around both. By the final (truncated) season, the procedural part of the show had basically been jettisoned in favour of a really meaty exploration of these questions. It got deep into an extended storyline about the balance between freedom and security, and which we should value more, as well as some fascinating (and vaguely terrifying) stuff about the rights of artificial life and what our relationship with an intelligence that is much, much smarter than us might be like. Obviously a lot of this is pretty topical and only got more so after the Snowden disclosures. I thought they did a great job taking us into interesting terrain and not really giving us easy answers.
They also created some fantastic characters. They’re hard to talk about without getting too spoilery, but consider for a moment one Lionel Fusco. Fusco is introduced as, basically, the stereotypical dirty cop, initially as an antagonist for Our Heroes and then as a reluctant asset as he gets strongarmed and blackmailed into providing information and assistance to their cases. This was pretty much where I figured he’d stay, for a few episodes, until he tried to get one over on the main characters and disappeared.
Boy was I wrong. Instead the writers gave us a guy who gradually figures out what he’s being asked to help with, and gets to remembering why he became a cop in the first place. We learn some of his reasons for becoming crooked in the first place and it’s hard not to sympathize. There’s a story where they need Fusco to keep pretending to be dirty to be the inside guy in a ring of corrupt cops, and his pain at having to keep being a crook was palpable. He gets through that, and without belabouring this point, by the end of the show Lionel Fusco is a heroic SOB and a character that I thought was going to be a fairly 2D throwaway became one of my favourites characters ever, a centrepiece of the show, and one of the more convincing redemption arcs I have ever seen done.
And that was just *one character*. We got a bunch of really good ones. The acting was consistently great (even Jim Caviezel, who I initially didn’t think was acting at all), the writing was fantastic, and the Person of Interest we ended up getting was the closest thing to a William Gibson story that I ever expect to see on television. I am sad to see it go, although I’m glad the writers (mostly) got to tell the story they wanted to, and I’d rather it went out still an excellent program than hanging around to trail off into mediocrity.
This is far more disjointed than I hoped it would be, but perhaps it may convince a few of you who didn’t watch the show the first time ’round to give it a shot. I think you’ll be pleased. By way of an ending, here’s one of my favorite speeches from it. This is Michael Emerson’s character, the creator of the AI from whence the numbers come, during the time when he was teaching it how to do its job.
“You asked me to teach you chess and I’ve done that. It’s a useful mental exercise. Through the years many thinkers have been fascinated by it, but I don’t enjoy playing. Do you know why not?
Because it was a game that was born during a brutal age when life counted for little and everyone believed some people were worth more than others. Kings and pawns.
I don’t think that anyone is worth more than anyone else. I don’t envy you the decisions you’re going to have to make.
And one day I’ll be gone, and you’ll have no one to talk to. But if you remember nothing else, please remember this:
Chess is just a game, real people aren’t pieces. And you can’t assign more value to some of them than to others. Not to me. Not to anyone.
People are not a thing that you can sacrifice.
The lesson is, that anyone who looks on the world as if it was a game of chess deserves to lose.“
I thought that was pretty good, and a pretty good example of why I’ll miss the show.