Not that much of interest

Person of Interest, 2011-, CBS

Seasons 1-3

Review by Peter Hulm

The risk run by all much-prolonged network TV series, in which each episode must leave things basically as they were, is that the programmes can quickly become a pastiche of themselves.

Mad Men is one high-quality example. In the U.K. we can point to Luther, which started as an examination of the relation between police and their suspects in modern British society and ended as a spectacular series about incredible crimes.

Breaking Bad avoided the dangers of self-parody, but it was not generally popular on its first runs and was a product of HBO, where much more freedom is allowed than by mainstream broadcasting.

Sherlock was a hit from the start in Britain, and made a star of Benedict Cumberbatch, largely as a result of smart re-readings of Conan Doyle's originals.

Sherlock's creators included a Dr Who author (Mark Gatiss), and this long-running, once terminated, then revived, piece of sci-fi tosh and low budgets from the BBC, dating back to 1963, has been an unacknowledged influence on many TV series, holding out the will-of-the-wisp promise of stupendous profts and success over several years for little effort.

In the Dr Who mode

Person of Interest, which launched in 2011 after "CBS's highest-testing drama pilot in 15 years", is firmly in the Dr Who tradition.

It has a Dr Who all-powerful eccentric overlord in Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), a companion figure in John Reese (Jim Caviezel), and even several putative replacements à la Dr Who, now on his 12th incarnation: notably Amy Acker with Sarah Shahi as her companion.

And, as an echo of so many Sherlockian narratives, we have a varied collection of supervillains, particularly the gently spoken scholarly gang boss Carl Elias (Enrico Colantoni), Control (Camryn Manheim), Alonzo Quinn (Clarke Peters), Officer Patrick Simmons (Robert John Burke (who gets all the worst lines), computer company rival John Greer (John Nolan, formerly of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, and an uncle of the Nolans) and from season 3, a rival computer known as Samaritan.

The cast of sidekick characters includes Detective Jocelyn "Joss" Carter (Taraji P. Henson) and the most developed character, that stereotype of a dirty cop trying to go straight, Detective Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman). They both become tools of Finch in Reese's work. If this sounds like a 21st-century update of Charlie's Angels (1976–1981) , don't be surprised. Many of the stories are as perfunctory as in the earlier series, with the focus on the team of action figures going through their paces.

Tics and tricks

Despite the echoes for film aficionados of Rear Window (1:11), the Japanese mango Wolf and Cub (1:14) and Goldfinger (2:13), Person of Interest quickly developed its own tics: leg shootings (disabling villains but not killing them, see), cellphones repeatedly destroyed by stomping on them, and what seemed like a shoot-out in every episode and tough-guy dialogue in lieu of anything more interesting to say. There's even that hoary dialogue line: "You gotta trust me."

As a result, the often perfectly pitched acting of Caviezel, Emerson, Henson and Chapman, as well as the others mentioned, can do nothing more than try to rescue the script from risibility.

The pull-in for audiences is the demonstration of how much digital surveillance and electronic recording are part of modern life. The creator, Jonathon Nolan (brother of director Christopher), was born in the UK and recalls being struck by the uniquity of camera surveillance in London streets. He is also a frequent collaborator with his brother on spectacular films, such as The Prestige and The Dark Knight.

Listen to the privacy terrorists

We get several comments on the surveillance society: "The world looks like it did 10 yeara ago. But underneath it's become very strange indeed" (2:7).

A "privacy terrorist" declares: "Our nation is assassinating people with drones, holding them without due process, and yes, spying on its own people without cause or limits and in direct violation of our constitution" (3:7).

Its most obvious statement comes at the beginning of each episode: "The government has a a secret system, a machine, that spies on you every hour of every day." The prologue reaches a sort of apogee with: "The government considers these people irrelevant. We don't" (3:9).

Revolt within the establishment

But as the Frontline documentary United States of Secrets (2014) makes clear, several high-ranking people in the NSA attempted to stop surveillance of U.S. citizens as illegal and a violation of the U.S. Constitution when George W. Bush, following the advice of Vice-President Cheney and the V.P.'s legal counsel, declared he had to authority to electronically monitor U.S. citizens without a court order.

The man who designed the surveillance programme, Bill Binney, NSA technical director, even resigned, along with other senior staff, when the NSA bosses stripped the code that stopped it tracking the electronic communication of U.S. citizens.

The deceptive, misleading and inaccurate portrayal by President Bush and the NSA chiefs of what was known as The Programme received widespread coverage after details were leaked to newspapers.

President Obama later approved the surveillance programme virtually unchanged and also gave a misleading account of what it involved (let's not say he was outright lying) -- leading Edward Snowden to decide he had to make the real details public.

Not interested?

A line in the second season (2012) tells viewers: "Strictly speaking, the machine is not legal."

However, Person of Interest does not go into why the machine is not legal, and in fact deals very little with the rights in question, except for its continuous portrayal of a government that does not care about using its surveillance powers to stop ordinary crime.

Despite the regular shots of New York street scenes under surveillance (apparently the signature shots come from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation surveillancce cameras), the series has little to say either about how the information is handled.

What is notable is rather the combination of martial arts plus soap opera narrative. It seems that every other scene has Finch, head lifted to the air, communicating by phone with Reese at the level of "Where are you" or "Are you alright?"

American success stories

At its base, the series is a tale of two men who have lost all purpose in life finding it again, but rapidly turning themselves into workaholics -- one in his office and the other out on the streets: two American success stories.

And from an opening concern with preventing crimes (the Minority Report twist to the usual crime story, the series spent its first two seasons focusing with endemic and uncontrollable corruption inside the New York police force, F.B.I. and city hall.

However, no-one seemed to find this unusual or worth getting indignant about. In these circumstances, such fictions are consolatory rather than informative: there will always be a hero or heroes to put things back into order, even outside the law.

As for the computer(s), the arch-villains/gods of earlier times, nothing is done to enlighten the public about the kinds of control that are, can or should be imposed on the gathering, and society's use, of such information. A single episode of The Good Wife managed to be more enlightening and engaging about the challenges to society from computers, though there is a reference in 2:7 to cyberwarfare (by Americans) through the Stuxnet program to sabotage Iranian nuclear centrifuges.

Formulaic but the wrong formula

In fact, the episode that does try to tell viewers something about computer security and cryptography gets its key formula wrong (2πR), but gathered the largest audience of the series (16.3 million), wikipedia records..

What might pass for social commentary, from the U.S, equivalent of "Disgusted of Dagenham", appears occasionally. A vet turned crook states: "There's no money, no jobs. Bankers gone lost it all, robbed the country blind. The economy's in the toilet" (1:3). Another episode informs us: "New York's just like Russia. You can't trust the cops."

The most popular episode in the frst season ("Many Happy Returns", 1:21) had an abusive husband in one storyline. Finch says he was surprised by the number of women being flagged by the computer until he twigged they were trying to escape from dangerous relationships, That story was echoed by the discovery that Reese's sweetheart was murdered by the man she married in a fake car accident.

Season two episode 7 has a professional Lesbian couple in the narrative and finally in Season 3 consumer intelligence -- the predecessor of the PRISM internet spying program -- is raised as a threat, but as a device to collect nformation for data brokers.

However, second viewings failed to confirm any difference in quality between the most highly rated episodes as listed by critics cited on/in wikipedia and the others.

Tall, dark and deranged

A running joke provides some relief: how other people describe "The Man in the Suit". My favourite: "tall, dark and deranged." But public phones ring an awful lot for our heroes on crowded streets.

Using examples from the public record as featured in United States of Secrets, which won a Peabody award for its reporters, we can get a clearer idea of what has actually transpired in the domestic spying front. Edward Drake, a senior official who tried to alert his superiors to the illegality of the data collection was driven nearly into poverty by Obama's administration and worked for a time in an Apple store in paying for a legal defence to charges that were later dropped. Another NSA protester was driven into near-breakdown .

Some 56,000 orders to hand over information were delivered in Internet companies in 2013 with a gag on even revealing this as part of the order. Only one business fought it, the small Calyx internet service provider in New York (with clients like IKEA), and won its suit against the Department of Justice.

An AT&T engineer noticed that his companies digital communications were being siphoned off through a splitter and a door that had no handles barring the way into a locked room. But no-one would publish the story.

And Edward Snowden's HongKong hideout, the Mira Hotel, was exposed when a journalist put photos of his room on the Internet and asked whether anyone could identify the place from its light fittings.

It's not just make-believe

Fiction has no obligation to be like fact, of course. Roy Armes has given the standard defence in Film and Reality: " Of a fiction film we cannot ask whether it is true to facts and circumstances outside itself, but only whether it creates a convincing make-believe" (49).

But this is disingenuous. Many television series base their appeal on their similarity to real life experiences or by revealing hidden problems of society and social issues.

They also provide fantasy or stereotypical solutions to these questions (unlike Breading Bad or The Wire).

It seems fair, then, to ask of such series how closely they match the realities, the discrepancies introduced, and the viability of the solutions to the real problems (as well as to the dramatic ones).

Cooling the viewer down

The drama which Person of Interest does not tackle takes place not just at the personal level -- though it is an intriguing question, whether all this surveillane could be used to protect rather than simply spy on the general public.

The concerns -- serious enough to end several careers -- arose within the NSA, Justice Department and Congress Committees as well as in those like Snowden and Chelsea Manning who were at the front-end of the surveillance. The privacy terrorists were as likely to be middle-aged spooks or a Congressional intelligence specialist as minority malcontents.

As distinct from real life (and British crime series), the protaganists in most U.S. series (see Life) are exempt from money troubles, and impoverishment is not used as an administrative weapon. This tends to take the bit out of the comments on bankers and the economy.

Guest stars make us feel safe

The many famous character actors featured as guest stars (Michael Kelly from House of Cards, Margo Martindale from The Americans and many others are comforting figures rather than provocative, since informed viewers are likely to recognize them from these popular shows. No matter how good their acting, since they are not disguised, they offer a guarantee that this is a fiction, and one that will offer a resolution. They are not given the chance to offer an interpretation of Hamlet, say, or even Batman. They are doing a turn.

The attempt to ingratiate the series with viewers descends even to redneck humour. A supposedly informed character describes Verdi as like listening to screaming cats (3:17), after an opera ignoramus has used exactly the same expression.

This positions the series for both critics and viewers. For this reason, Person of Interest cannot recognize how closely its characters ape ordinary wage-labour conditions even when pretending to be ironic: "My boss gave me the day off. It's my birthday" (1:21). "Let me guess, I have to cancel my dinner plans" (1:23).

Person of Interest gives us the anomie and anonymity of city life in all its facets: the police officers seem to have no relations outside their partners, though both the police protaganists have a child. The only people bound in a cohesive relationships are the corrupt police network and the government villains. In view of what happened to Edward Snowden and the government whistleblowers, this might be truer of U.S. society than it first appears.

The stereotypical format -- each episode a psychological and physical quest that has to be solved 43 minutes later -- might lead us to compare it with the Russia folk tales studied by Vladimir Propp, whose analysis had a great influence on French structuralists.

Propp's Morphology of the Folktale was first published in 1928 but only became influential on French critics in the 1950s.

From his studies of Russian tales Propp proposed that each tale was made up of a combination of 'functions', a term which structuralists such as Roland Barthes and Claude Bremond took over (Onega and García Landa 1996:45

Susana Onega Jaén and José Angel García Landa note that "Barthes' model improves on Propp's in that it offers the notions of 'levels of description' and the logic of vertical ('hierarchical') integration of narrative instances" (ibid)

It was first spelled out in 'Introduction à l'analyse structurale du récit' Communications 8 (1966):1-27 (ibid)

Onega and Garcia Landa add: "Barthes also contends that traditional classifications of character types are unsatisfactory because they rely excessively on the privileging of one particular kind of character: the subject" (ibid).

"He proposes to void the notion of 'character' of its humanistic connotations in favour of the functional notion of agent or 'actant'" (ibid).

We can bear this in mind when applying Proppian ideas to film or television, but the 'improvements' do not seem particularly illuminating for Person of Interest, since the hierarchical levels are very low (usually just two: the protaganists and the drama, and the series is firmly anchored on the subject.

The critic and film-maker Peter Wollen has examined Hitchcock's North By Northwest using Propp's categories (1976, 1980, 1982). "I was surprised how easily Propp's functions and method of analysis in general could be applied to North By Northwest. With several other Hitchcock films, the film, subjected to Proppian analysis, seems to be part of a 'transformation group' (Wollen 1982:23).

Wollen observed: "It was Propp's contention that all tales he analysed derived from a single archetypal model, in which all the functions occurred in the determined sequence he assigned them" (Wollen 1982:22).

This immediately required a caveat: "In practice, different tales omitted various functions or reversed their order of appearance, owing to corruption of the archetype" (ibid).

Nevertheless, "functions were paired or group in fixed patterns of association, coincidence and order. Thus, where 'pursuit' occurred, there would also be 'rescue', and in that order" (23).

Wollen noted that Propp's analysis was of tales from a traditional oral culture but one of his goals was to see "whether there was any affinity" with contemporary mass culture (ibid).

For Propp, each tale has a preparatory section. Wollen suggests this involves "the establishment of the villain's superior power, by virtue of which he can commit his act of villainy" (24).

Propp speaks of the absentation function: an object of value is left unguarded or the hero or some other future victim is not with friends and family and hence vulnerable to the villain.

"The pair interdiction/violation anticipates the punishment of the hero or future victim, which is then in effect carried out by the villain" (ibid).

"The pair reconnaissance/receipt of information explains that the villain has superior knowledge. And the pair trickery/submission to trickery is straightforward" (ibid).

The second stage of the narrative -- the complication -- "concerns the reestablishment of the hero's superior powers", Wollen writes (24), who admits that in North By Northwest this occurs only at the end.

But the film has a recurrent pattern of "interdiction/violation, followed (later) by arrest and rescue", found more frequently in native American tales (25).

Propp distinguishes between the "seeker-hero" and the "victim-hero" in his analysis of tales. In the film he reverts back from victim-hero in the later stage, while in Person of Interest, it seems clear that the action hero, John Reese, begins as a seeker-hero in the back story, is presented as a victim-hero in the jobs he is given without choice, and he then has to act as a seeker-hero with a quest. The same switch occurs in the police protagonists, and Harold himself the recluse rapidly turns into a seeker-hero.

'Dispatch' is a major function for Propp (as in the television series): "The hero is allowed to depart...the initiative for departure comes from the hero [not true in Person of Interest]...The parents bestow their blessing" (Wollen 28).

Wollen notes that the film's deceit, masquerade, misrecognition and imposture functions are more typical of a native-American 'trickster' tale than Propp's Russian folk tales (31).

He also points out that lack of knowledge as a major element in the film turns the movie into a mystery story interwoven with a quest story (32).


Armes, Roy. 1974. Film and reality; an historical survey. Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN: 0140217010.

Greg Metcalf. 2012. The DVD novel: how the way we watch television changed the television we watch. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger. ISBN: 9780313385810.

Onega Jaén, Susana, and José Angel García Landa, eds. 1996. Narratology: an introduction. London: Longman. ISBN: 0582255422.

Wollen, Peter. 1982. Readings and writings: semiotic counter-strategies. Verso. ISBN: 086091755X.