Person of Interest pilot delivers gray-area ethics and surveillance science fiction

It's no surprise that the broody, high-tech series Person of Interest comes from the mind of Jonathan Nolan, who wrote the movie Memento and co-wrote The Dark Knight and the forthcoming Dark Knight Rises. The show premiered last night on CBS, and the premise has us hooked. I can't resist a show about a mysterious guy named Finch (Lost's Michael Emerson) who has a secret backdoor into the government's mega-surveillance system — and uses the information he pilfers to fight crime.

The show broad-brushes in its main characters quickly. Reese (Jim Caviezel) is a heartbroken former government ninja who lost his girlfriend and disappeared into a life of alcoholic homelessness. But Finch sees all, with the help of his cash and surveillance tentacles, and figures out that Reese is the man he wants to hire for his clandestine operation. And what is that operation exactly? It's a kind of subversive version of the Department of Precrime from Minority Report. As you can see in this clip, Finch designed a Big Data processing program after 9/11 than can sift through surveillance footage looking for "patterns" that reveal crimes about to happen.

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Now, Finch and Reese are about to embark on a quest to find out where those patterns lead and hopefully save some lives.

Though the show is making reference to actual programs the government has tried to implement, experts told io9 that Finch's Machine — capable of identifying specific people at the center of a future crime — is still in the realm of science fiction. And that's what I love about it.

A lot of the action sequences with Reese's character either flat-out didn't make sense or felt like generic action set pieces. He follows the potential victim/criminal around on a crowded street! He trains his super-fancy gun on her using his ultra-ninja sharpshooter skills! Fisticuffs! Elbow punches! Turns out the woman we thought was a victim was actually masterminding a huge police scam involving total corruption! Good guys vindicated; bad guys go to jail. Eh.

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But whenever Finch walks on screen with his twitchy ethics and mystery techno-powers, I'm sold on this five-minutes-into-the-future story. While the danger is that it could become a rote precrime of the week show, that's not where it seems to be going. Not with Nolan writing it. Next week's episode, "Ghosts," looks like a promising follow-up to an uneven pilot. It will be delving further into Finch's past and how he designed the Machine.

My hope for this show is that we can get a juicy conspiracy plot arc about high tech government surveillance and the people who subvert it. Who else has backdoors into the Machine? What else can it predict? That sort of thing. And Reese will always be around to give us a little shoot-em-up action when needed. I'm looking forward to where Person of Interest is going, because surveillance datamining is a lovely, untapped source of paranoia. Plus, vigilante surveillance for justice is an idea that's a delightful shade of gray — the perfect color for a show like this one.

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