Tonight sees the midseason finale of Person of Interest, Jonathan Nolan's attempt to turn The Dark Knight's themes into a weekly TV show.
And over the course of nine episodes so far, one thing has become clear: This is how to do a superhero TV show in the post-Smallville era. Person of Interest is succeeding where so many other superhero shows have failed, and it's capturing something crucial to why we still care about superheroes at all.
Actually, Person of Interest could be considered an example of two different types of show which have had a horrendous failure rate recently:
1) The attempt to recapture Lost's former glory. Both during Lost's run and since Lost went off the air, there have been a ton of mystery-based shows, with a sinister premise and a lot of weirdness. Recently, some of them have actually featured a former Lost supporting actor, as Person of Interest does.
2) The superhero show. This genre has been strewn with wreckage on television lately, from Birds of Prey to No Ordinary Family and The Cape. We're hoping two upcoming shows, Powers and AKA Jessica Jones, can turn the tide.
And actually, Person of Interest is a good blueprint of how both of those upcoming shows could work, since it successfully takes a "dark and gritty" feel, and grafts it onto the traditional urban crimefighting schtick.
At this point, probably some people are questioning whether Person of Interest really counts as a superhero show — and it's true that nobody dresses up in a funny costume on this show, any more than Wolverine does most of the time in his movies. As we've observed before, the superhero genre is really a thousand different genres squashed together weirdly, and one of those is the "gritty urban vigiliante" genre.
So what superpower do our heroes have in Person of Interest? Easy. They have the power of knowing the future — but only in super vague, incredibly unhelpful ways. (And to a large extent, I'd argue that Reese's ability to win almost any fight and make almost any minor criminal his bitch constitutes a secondary superpower. He really is Batman, minus the costume and detective ability.)
In Person of Interest, a man named Finch (Lost's Michael Emerson) helped build a computer system for the government that spies on everybody and sifts through spy cameras, emails, phone calls, and so on. This system is designed to look for terrorists, but it also spots potential crimes before they happen — so Emerson set it up to provide him with just the serial number of the perpetrator or victim of an upcoming crime (but only in the Tristate area.)
And thus every week, the machine spits out another number, and Finch sends Reese, his muscle, to go deal with the situation. Cue lots and lots of scenes of Reese spying on people for Finch, occasionally infiltrating various criminal organizations, and quite frequently beating the crap out of low-life scum. (I still love the whole "lock the gangsters in a car trunk and drive around in circles really fast" tactic.)
So here's a good place to admit that Person of Interest is not a masterpiece, by any means. The dialogue is frequently somewhat wooden. Some of the episodes have definitely been better than others, and there has been some lazy plotting here and there. The hero, Reese, is probably the least interesting character on the show, except when he's intimidating thugs, and we've learned a lot of boring stuff about his backstory. Reese, played by Jim Caviezel, has one facial expression most of the time. The show is still definitely finding its feet.
But it's fun to watch, which is more than you can say for a lot of other shows that have come along recently. And as an exploration of vigilantism and how a lone hero uses his unusual power — fairly standard superhero themes — it's actually pretty fascinating. The power of knowing what crimes are going to happen before they happen allows Reese and Finch to help people, and at least sometimes to stop bad things from happening, but it also causes them to make mistakes and do more harm than good.
The ambiguity of not knowing whether the Social Security Number in question is a victim or perpetrator is a bit contrived, perhaps, but I've liked the way the show has played with it. People who appear to be innocent victims have turned out to be psychopaths, and vice versa. Apart from anything else, it's a great portrayal of the perils of acting on imperfect information, and trying to take the law into your own hands.
And when you break it down to its most basic elements, this is a show about people following instructions from a computer, without understanding those instructions. If this show actually gets a second season, it would be great to see more exploration of just what following a computer's orders blindly really means.
In any classic vigilante narrative, the vigilante is both anti-social and concerned for society's well-being. The lone hero acts outside of all the social institutions, and often has some contempt for them, but also sees him- or herself as the protector of the broader social order. Thus, in a sense, the vigilante tries to distinguish between society, which is worth protecting, and its institutions, which are fucked.
Person of Interest plays up this dichotomy in a really interesting way, by giving Reese and Finch relationships with two cops. Their ally is Fusco, a corrupt cop whom they openly despise and blackmail into helping them. (And yet Fusco sees helping Reese and Finch as the key to his redemption and restoration to honor.) Meanwhile, they admire and practically worship Lt. Carter, the upstanding cop who wants to hunt them down and lock them up. (The show is clearly leading towards Carter becoming an ally at some point, but maybe not soon.)
More recently, the show has gotten its first arch-villain, if not an outright supervillain. There's an evil manipulative mob boss, named Elias, who plays Reese and Finch on their first meeting. And — yay! — he's played by Enrico Colantoni, better known to most of us as Keith Mars on Veronica Mars. He's a total sociopath who wants to reunite New York's Mob families and take out all his competition, including the Russians.
He's too big a threat for Reese and Finch to take down in a one-off episode, and one senses he'll be around at least for the rest of the season. (Maybe he'll turn out to have a clever blonde daughter?)
And there's a great scene in one of the recent episodes where a corrupt cop tells Fusco that Elias is going to make the trains run on time. Things are going back to the way they used to be — no more petty crime, no more chaos. Just order, as only Organized Crime can maintain it.
With that scene, the show sets up an opposition between two kinds of anti-social order — there's Reese and Finch's vigilantism, which uses the Panopticon and universal surveillance to try and keep society safe. And then there's rule by Organized Crime, which relies on criminals governing themselves and keeping crime under careful control. They both share the same goal — or at least, they claim to — and neither of them is using legal means to achieve it.
So Jonathan Nolan has admitted that this show is exploring many of the same themes as The Dark Knight, especially Batman's use of surveillance technology to catch the Joker. But as yet, the only criminals that Reese and Finch have faced on Person of Interest have been mobsters and small-time crooks. Reese and Finch are heading for a confrontation with Elias and his mafia renaissance, which may well end with them breaking the mob, the way Batman has at the start of The Dark Knight.
Which brings us to another reason to keep watching Person of Interest, and hope it gets a second season: You know at some point, this show will get its own Joker.