I’m going to make a bold claim, and that is that Person Of Interest is the best science-fiction show on television. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, that might seem like a strange statement. After all, it’s just a show about some vigilante style guys who save people right? I mean sure, they get their information from some weird machine, but that thing is just like an NSA spy program, not too far removed from reality. There aren’t any space ships, or androids, or laser rifles, so how is this sci-fi?
While many other sci-fi or fantasy shows (or movies or books for that matter) are caught up in the trappings of their genre and building a world far removed from our own, Person Of Interest is more interested in exploring the emerging possibilities that might come about in the near future of our current and changing world. The show did start out with a very loose sci-fi feel that was closer to the procedurals audiences are familiar with. Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), a billionaire, computer genius, and recluse, recruits former special forces agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) to help him save the lives of everyday people. Finch built a machine that the US government uses to monitor communication and predict terrorist attacks so that they can be prevented. What no one but Finch knows is that the machine also generates a list of “irrelevant” numbers. These are just normal people that the machine predicts will be killed, and it is up to Finch and Reese to save them.
Initially the show featured Finch and Reese, with the help of their friends, as a kind of crime fighting duo acting on the advice of an advanced spy engine. The people the battled against were mostly criminals or corrupt cops in New York City. But since its inception, the show has evolved greatly, and the most important part of that evolution is the development of the Machine from a neat plot device into a true character.
io9 did a great article on some of the issues Person Of Interest is exploring and how the show is continuing to develop. It also include interviews with producers Greg Plageman and Jonathan Nolan (Chris’ little bro), and, I should warn, several spoilers.
To give a low-spoiler summary, at its heart, the show is about the evolution and birth of an artificial intelligence into our world. It explores how an AI consciousness might develop and how it might think. Unlike many other sci-fi stories that the general public may be familiar with, the Machine in Person Of Interest is not similar to a human, and it has a mind that works in a completely different way (a way that we are now starting to see being slowly revealed).
But outside of its focus on AI, the show also explores other near-future developments, like the death of the nation state as we know it. It shows the rise of information brokers and the kind of power they might hold in society. It shows the shifting power paradigm and how different people handle it. Some have put themselves in a position to attain a great deal of power because of how highly they value information. Others, like certain agents in the US government, struggle to hold on to the old ways and have a hard time comprehending the changing environment. And still others, like the show’s domestic terrorist group Vigilance, fight against the tide through any means necessary.
All in all this show is a fascinating vision of the near future, about how things are changing even now, and about the good and bad that could come of it as we move forward.
I should say that this show, on top of its exploration of pertinent futurist topics, also has great acting, great dialogue, and just generally great writing. I’ve posted one of my favorite scenes below, and it actually doesn’t feature any of the primary characters, but I love Elias’ take on humanity and civilized people. This is the final moment from this season’s (Season 3) mid-season finale, so of course if you haven’t kept up there are a lot of spoilers here. You’ve been warned.