To the extent that CBS has a public image, it’s of a boring old geezer who has mastered a formula the other TV networks don’t even want to emulate. Its schedule is packed with procedurals (shows like the NCISes, the CSIs, Blue Bloods), broad comedies (Two and a Half Men, 2 Broke Girls, The Big Bang Theory), and long-running reality competitions (Survivor and The Amazing Race). With the exception of The Good Wife, there’s very little on CBS that sets the critics’ hearts racing. But the network kills in the ratings. Last week, CBS had seven of the top 10 broadcast shows among 18-to-49-year-olds and in total viewers.
Yesterday, one of those procedurals, Person of Interest, did something very smart and extremely risky, and CBS deserves praise for supporting it.
Person of Interest was the most-watched drama on television last week. When the show premiered in 2011, I was turned off by its inscrutable main characters and what felt like an over-reliance on omniscient surveillance as a mystery-solving technique. Since then, I’ve come to trust the show’s patient, measured storytelling. Thirty-nine episodes in, viewers still lack a lot of basic information about John Reese (Jim Caviezel), Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), and The Machine that Finch created. In a TV world where so many shows avoid any possibility of ambiguity or uncertainty, it’s admirable that so many of us tune in every week in the hopes that some of the lacunae will be filled in. (And in this case “tuning in every week” is essential: As I learned when I had a couple of weeks of TV troubles, there doesn’t seem to be a legal place to catch up with the show online. It isn’t available on iTunes or Hulu, and CBS.com provides only “highlights” rather than entire episodes.)
The show has also evolved in all kinds of interesting ways. NYPD detective—and Afghanistan veteran—Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson) was initially introduced as a threat to Reese and Finch’s operation; now she is an invaluable ally. And while Reese once seemed like a PTSD-ridden burnout, we now that that his rejection of his former superiors in the Army and CIA is a reasonable response to their murderous mistreatment of agents like him. (Phil Dyess-Nugent wrote a great piece on Person of Interest for the A.V. Club’s TV Club last week that explores the show’s willingness to redefine characters as it fills out their backstories.)
Last night, though, Reese, Finch, and Carter were mere supporting players who were on screen for no more than five minutes each. Instead, the episode focused on a whole world of characters we’d never seen before, especially one woman: Samantha Shaw, played by the similarly sibilant Sarah Shahi.
In one hour, Person of Interest introduced the notion that Finch’s Machine, which spits out the Social Security numbers of would-be murder victims (or perpetrators) whom they then protect from being murdered (or prevent from committing murder), isn’t unique. Another machine also exists.* It generates numbers, but they identify terrorists whom Shaw and her colleagues at an unspecified government agency must then extract or assassinate. We also learned that Reese isn’t unique. Shaw is also a cold, consummately talented fighting machine capable of taking out all-comers if they threaten her survival. (And, like him, she can take a bullet and carry on kicking ass.)
Person of Interest took a huge risk in removing almost all of the show’s familiar faces for nearly the entire hour. The last time I remember an established show doing something similar was back in 2011, when Bones gave over an episode to a “backdoor pilot” for The Finder, also created by Hart Hanson. I never gave The Finder another chance, because I was mad that I’d tuned in for an episode of Bones and instead gotten another program altogether. Person of Interest is very different from Bones, of course. For one thing, it has so many still-unexplained elements that viewers are less likely to tune out if they go 20 minutes without seeing anyone they recognize.
It’s not clear when Shahi will return, but Person of Interest needs more female energy. Carter is a strong, regular presence, but she’s a cop, a good cop limited to obeying the law, and a single mother who can’t stray too far from her home base. And New York City is a lot of ground for one man to cover; introducing another attractive, enigmatic action hero will take some of the strain off Reese’s shoulders. Most of all, though, I can’t help thinking that Person of Interest—and CBS—was showing off a little: It can remove all traces of its lead characters for most of an episode, and still get more than 14 million people to watch.
*Update, Feb. 22, 2013: Thanks to the commenters who pointed out that there is only (as far as we know) one machine. The numbers Shaw and her team received were the "relevant" numbers Finch's machine is designed to generate; the numbers that Finch and Reese investigate every week are the non-terrorist cases the machine (or the folks Finch sold it to) deems irrelevant. In other words, it is more accurate to think of it as the other side of the machine, rather than another machine.
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