Person of Interest and the total surveillance society

Yesterday, I watched the pilot of the new CBS show Person of Interest.

It's pretty good in a variety of ways. It has the potential to fall into formula quickly, but there's enough interesting stuff in the pilot to get me to watch at least a couple more episodes.

But the thing I found most interesting is the premise. I knew that it involved something about predicting crimes, so I assumed there was some kind of magic or psychic powers or something going on. (See also Minority Report.) But what they're actually doing is much more intriguing than that, to me.

And there are some interesting people involved. For example, the show was created by Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher Nolan; also author of the short story that Memento was based on, and co-author of the screenplays for The Prestige and The Dark Knight), and produced by J. J. Abrams. And one of the protagonists is played by Michael Emerson, who played Ben on Lost. Which for me adds a whole extra layer of (presumably unintentional) creepiness to this new show (because Kam and I are watching season 3 of Lost these days), although Emerson's character is apparently an unambiguous good guy here.

The rest of this entry contains minor spoilers for the pilot—not about the plot, just about some details of the premise that aren't made clear until at least halfway through. If you're interested in stuff about privacy and surveillance, and you like actiony investigator kinds of shows, you may find it more interesting to watch the episode (currently free on CBS's website) and see this develop over the course of it than to just get my summary.

(But note that the show may be kinda triggery about stalker issues. More on that near the end of this entry.)

The stuff in the premise that I find most interesting is not entirely new. A bunch of recent TV shows, and lots of movies, have shown us hints of the pervasive surveillance available today; often, for example, there's a hacker character who can hack into the security cameras and such as needed.

But Person of Interest takes this, it seems to me, a step further: surveillance is woven deeply into the fabric of the show. There are a bunch of shots from traffic and security cameras, and a lot of what the actiony protagonist (Reese) does is watch and listen. (In, I have to say, a kind of creepy stalkery way.)

We start to get hints of where the show might be going in an early exchange between a cop (I like her a lot, and hope she becomes a more prominent character) and Reese (who at the time of this exchange hasn't been named onscreen yet):

Carter: I'm Carter. You didn't give us a name.

Reese: You know, it's funny: seems like the only time you need a name now is when you're in trouble.

And then a little later, Reese meets the thinky protagonist (named Finch, but I initially thought of him as not-Ben):

Reese: You don't know anything about me.

Not-Ben: I know exactly everything about you, Mr. Reese.

(Didn't almost exactly that exchange appear in Lost?)

And there's other interesting stuff along those lines. But where the show becomes really fascinating is the scene when Finch finally explains the premise to Reese.

It turns out that after 9/11, the government hired Finch to create a computer that can correlate huge amounts of information and thereby predict similar major terrorist attacks. Finch did that.

Finch: The public wanted to be protected, they just didn't want to know how they were being protected. So when [the government] finally got a system that worked, they kept it secret.

But he discovered that the “machine,” as he calls it, also predicted a lot of other stuff: all sorts of violent crimes of the sort that are planned ahead of time. And he built a back door into it for himself:

Finch: I was building the government a tool of unimaginable power. I thought maybe an off switch would come in handy.

And he set it up so that it tells him the Social Security number of a person who will be involved in some way in a violent crime (perpetrator, victim, bystander, whatever). And now he's hired Reese to get involved ahead of time and prevent the crime.

Note that this scene of Finch explaining things to Reese as they walk through a park is shown largely through the park's security cameras.

And here's the bit that I really loved:

Reese: So where's the machine now?

Finch: What, the drives? Who knows. Government facility somewhere. But the machine? The machine is everywhere. Watching us with ten thousand eyes. Listening with a million ears.

And then, overlaid on the security-camera view, we start to see snippets of text transcripts of things various people in the park are saying, on phones and to each other, as we hear a montage of their voices.

I found it chilling, and really nicely done.

I kept thinking it's kind of like Nolan read Brin's The Transparent Society and thought How can I turn this into a vigilante-justice TV show?

I should note that there are things I don't like about the show so far.

For example, various aspects of the premise are just goofy. Why Social Security numbers? (What happens if there's a violent crime involving someone who doesn't have one?) And even given that Finch says he wants to limit how much info the machine is sending him, to keep a low profile, why can't the machine also send a single additional bit indicating perpetrator or victim? What kind of sorting criteria is the machine using to determine who's the most important person to mention? Given that Reese is acting outside the law and can be a pretty violent guy, why isn't the machine pointing him out as a person of interest? And so on and so on.

But I'm willing to set those issues aside.

The more problematic and troubling issue I had with the pilot was that it's really creepy to watch these two guys (both of whom can be mildly creepy in their own ways) spend most of an episode surveilling a woman who doesn't know they exist. They watch her via security cameras and binoculars; they listen in on her phone calls; it felt pretty stalkery to me, and even though it wasn't particularly sexualized, I feel like there's some male-gaze stuff going on there, too. But I suspect this will get a little less creepy (or at least creepy in a different way) when we see some male people-of-interest; I think that aspect of the show's idea is meant to be that we're all under observation all the time.

I think the creepiness factor may also go down if there end up being more women on the show. For example, I have high hopes for Carter, the cop at the beginning, to become more prominent, and I wouldn't be too surprised if Reese's dead love interest (seen in flashbacks) were to show up at some point.

But mostly, I will be really interested to see whether the series turns into a twisty kind of show that closely examines its own premise (for example, I'm hoping there'll be government agents who know about the machine), or whether it turns into just another vigilante-justice show. I do like me a good vigilante-justice show; not saying that's inherently a bad thing. I'm just hoping this show goes deeper than that.

2 Responses to “Person of Interest and the total surveillance society”

  1. jere7my

    I liked it a lot too. I suspect the creepiness is intentional — you wouldn’t cast Michael Emerson if you weren’t going for that vibe, I don’t think. And Jim Caviezel’s character is coming from a very dark place, and doing very dark things — I got a Rorschach vibe from him in some scenes. Or I feel like we’re seeing Batman split into two characters — the detective and the crimefighter.

    As to the goofiness of the premise, I see no reason to think Finch isn’t lying (even though he said “I’ll never lie to you”). For instance: he’s been watching Caviezel for a very long time, he says, but he no longer has access to his computer program that watches everyone? Hmmm. I think there will be more surprises about the way the program works. (There’s no reason to think it didn’t spit out Caviezel’s SSN, btw.)

    And the long shot of computer banks at the end leads me to believe we’re going to see the people in that facility sometime, too.

  2. tim-pratt

    I liked it. Some of the spycraft was a bit crap — you don’t have a subtle clandestine meeting with someone by standing very close — but at right angles to them! — in public, with both of you looking around shiftily to see if you’re being watched. And shooting a room full of people and intentionally and successfully merely wounding all of them is… implausible, to the extent that it’s something only comic book superheroes (or characters in a GI Joe cartoon) should be able to do. And the “twist” was telegraphed too much — we were told “She could be the victim OR the perpetrator,” but Reese just assumed she was going to be the victim, so it was obvious she’d be the villain.

    But I LOVED the way he recruited the only-slightly-dirty-cop, and the way his violent ops were very quick, clever but relatively simple, and pulled off with an almost bland professionalism — some of the tactics were very cool. I’ll watch it again.


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