Thursday, October 13, 2016

Essay: The Stealth Futurism of Person of Interest

As I've mentioned already, I spent much of the summer working on a large writing project, which is now online.  Over at PopMatters, you can read my essay "This is the Next World": The Stealth Futurism of Person of Interest, in which I discuss how an initially inauspicious high-concept procedural transformed, over the course of five seasons, into one of the most explicitly SFnal shows on TV, one that tackled core SF concepts like AI, and explored the ways in which an artificial life might see the world, and how its existence would challenge our ideas of personhood and free will.

I ended up rewatching Person of Interest in preparation for writing this essay, and though some aspects of the show remained unimpressive throughout--the standalone plots start out halting and overwrought and, almost impossibly, get worse as the show draws on--what struck me at the end of that rewatch was how much I had to say.  My essay is quite long, and yet it leaves so much out that I could have talked about.  I say almost nothing about Carter or Fusco, two of my favorite characters who mostly got left out of the show's SFnal storytelling.  I don't really discuss the problems with the show's War on Terror-focused premise, and the way that it implicitly validates simplistic ideas about geopolitics and terrorism; or, for that matter, the show's frustrating tendency to corral black characters into crime-focused storylines.  I don't mention the romance between Root and Shaw, which I found alternately problematic and inspiring.  Hell, I don't even bring up Bear, the crime-fighting dog, which I would have thought impossible before sitting down to write this piece.  My take on Person of Interest in this essay is very much the Finch, Root, and Machine show.

Nevertheless, that show is worth watching for, especially if you, like myself, initially dismissed Person of Interest as science fiction-lite.  Creator Jonathan Nolan is currently the producer of HBO's Westworld, and if I have any hope that that show will tie itself together into a genuinely interesting, SFnal story, it is mostly on the strength of Person of Interest.  If you enjoyed the show, I hope my essay sheds light on how it built its ideas about AI.  If you haven't watched it yet, I hope you'll be inspired to check it out.

UPDATE: If you're interested in picking up the series, but daunted by its reputation as an indifferent procedural, I've got a primer on my tumblr listing the episodes that I think are essential to the development of the show's SFnal storylines, and skipping (hopefully) most of the dross.

12 comments:

Tim Ward said...

I decided not to read the whole essay yet because I might be interested in watching the show first. How does the procedural aspect work - does it work in its own right, or is it more of a 'sit through this to get to the interesting stuff' deal?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Overall, the procedural plots are disconnected from the show's overarching story, though there are individual episodes that connect the two, for example when a CIA analyst is marked for death because he's begun to suspect the Machine's existence. What makes some procedural episodes a must-watch even though they're not really connected to the main plot is the existence of flashbacks, which introduce us to the characters' past, and particularly to the story of how the Machine came into existence.

I actually have in my notes about the show a list of must-see episodes that tries to weed out the pointless standalones while still keeping in most of the important flashbacks. I might put it online somewhere next week (I'm on vacation right now and don't really have the time).

Mike said...

If you could post your list of must-see episodes that would be awesome!

I'd love to watch the show but don't have quite as much time as I used to. Especially since "the standalone plots start out halting and overwrought and, almost impossibly, get worse" :)

That said - enjoy your vacation and thank you for posting that other article - it was fascinating, enjoyable, and really well-written!

George Pedrosa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
George Pedrosa said...

I'd love to have that must-see episodes list too. Don't have the time to watch 23-episode seasons anymore unfortunately, but your article got me really curious about this show. Incidentally, what do you think of Westworld so far?

Chris said...

Forgive me for asking a question that's not actually about POI, but -

"Along the way, it delivers what is hands-down the most nuanced handling of 9/11 and its aftermath that American TV has been able to produce."

Can you elaborate? Asking because I haven't watched Fringe yet and it's one of the shows I'm looking at possibly getting into next. What I've read about it didn't seem especially focused on 9/11 and aftermath, at least not the way Person Of Interest was.

Thank you as well for the article! Great review for a great show.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I wrote about how Fringe approaches 9/11 in my review of the first three seasons of the show. To be fair, that's a thread that the show mostly drops in its later seasons (along with several other interesting and fruitful plotlines) but I still found it more interesting - and more willing to engage in self-reflection - than more celebrated fusions of SF and recent politics, such as Battlestar Galactica.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

A bit later than I'd planned, but here it is: Person of Interest, the good bits version.

Tim Ward said...

Thank you for posting that, Abigail.

It actually looks like the signal to filler ratio is about 50-50 there, which isn't too bad at all. A lot of shows would aspire to have only 50% filler, I think.

Tim Ward said...

So, uh, does the Machine only work in New York or something? I am finding that quite distracting. It's not like the protagonists lack the resources to travel.

I think the show should be asking more questions about Reese's habit of saving a single life each week, by leaving at least half a dozen other bodies at each location he visits. Sure, they're not nice people but is that really a net gain?

Otherwise - interesting ideas, but veerry formulaic so far and yet compelling for all that. I wonder if 'safe procedural with unusual premise' was the only way the show runners could actually get the thing made?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yeah, the whole bit where the irrelevant numbers are only applicable to New York (whereas, as you go on to learn, the relevant ones are national and even global) is something you have to agree not to notice. It does have the advantage of giving the show a distinct local flavor - the fact that it was actually shot in New York helps a lot on that front - and grounds it in a way that other globe-trotting superhero stories often end up needing.

I think we're meant to believe that Reese tries to wound more often than he kills (though it's possible that that attitude crystalizes later in the series - certainly by season 4 it's almost a running gag). Either way, that's obviously a fig leaf, but I don't know why that attitude bothers me so much less here than in other superhero stories - perhaps because it's usually a fair fight or even underdog fight, whereas someone like Daredevil or Luke Cage is often a great deal more powerful than the opponents they grievously injure.

Tim Ward said...

Yes, I remember being very... put off by, for example, the opening scene in Winter Soldier where Capt. America and Black Widow essentially massacre a large number of guards that they clearly outclass many times over. I even recall one scene in that sequence where Black Widow overpowers and incapacitates a guard and then appears to kill him out of nothing but spite (though it's possible, probable, that I misremembered or misinterpreted what was supposed to be happening).

I think what makes these scenes off putting is that they clash with the characterization of the heroes so vividly. So, either the writes seem to think this is acceptable behavior for heroic people or they weren't arsed to think through the implications of the scene they were writing and neither reflects well on them, or the movie.

Reese on the other hand is supposed to be a morally ambiguous character (albeit in a rather cliched way), and we're not necessarily supposed to find his actions or his methods 100% admirable so it's a lot more palatable watching him shoot a bunch of people. Plus, what you said about the more grounded nature of the violence is important - it is more acceptable to watch someone use lethal force if you believe they're in serious danger of being hurt or killed themselves.

The problem I do have with it in this show is that it seems to clash with the premise of the show. Unlike superhero movies and shows they're not fighting for any great cause or to prevent some kind of great disaster, they're fighting each episode to save single a life - presumably on the premise that any life, no matter who it belongs to, is valuable and should be saved if at all possible. In that context, I'd have expected Finch to at least question the rightness of unleashing Reese on every situation they come up against when he seems to kill about a dozen people per episode.

And he might well decide that the people Reese kills are shitheads who would just hurt a loads of other people anyway, so it's fine - but it should be something the show at least acknowledges.

Post a Comment