How Person Of Interest captures the national post-post-9/11 mood

How Person Of Interest captures the national post-post-9/11 mood

Before its première in September 2011, Person Of Interest had some buzz to make it one of the most-anticipated new shows of the fall season. It had an air of mystery and an intriguing pedigree: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan’s brother and sometime writing partner, was the series creator. J. J. Abrams and Bryan Burk were among the producers. One of the two leads was Michael Emerson, in a shadowy-brainmaster role seemingly designed to remind viewers how much they’d liked him as Benjamin Linus on Lost. Yet the show burned off its hip cachet before the middle of its first season, even as it remained a solid performer in terms of ratings. 

At first blush, it seemed to be pure formula. Every week, the geeky guy, Mr. Finch (Emerson), would assign the hulking guy, Mr. Reese (Jim Caviezel), a task, and the hulking guy would go out and perform it. The task invariably involved protecting someone or preventing something terrible from happening, and the twist was that part of Reese’s job was to figure out who needed saving from whom—he would have a name but none of the specifics. This method of working put him in harm’s way, but the pilot established that Reese was as indestructible as Superman. The show itself might have been inspired by Jules Feiffer’s famous comment that Superman’s biggest problem was arriving in the middle of chaos and figuring out whom to punch.

Reese gets his information from Finch, who gets it from a “machine” that he built for the U.S. government after September 11, 2001. Finch’s Machine collates all the information that is constantly being gathered by the post-9/11 surveillance network watching all of us. It crunches that information, then spits out the names of people who figure in the “chatter” that security agencies analyze for hints of possible terrorist activity. In the course of its work, the Machine picks up a lot of activity that doesn’t threaten the homeland, but does threaten unlucky individual citizens. Every week, in his introductory remarks, Finch says that “the government considers these people irrelevant,” in a tone of angry contempt that makes viewers hope this guy is on our side. 

He is on our side; rather than allow all those little people to be collateral damage, he has gone off the grid and assumed a false identity. He uses the uncountable billions he acquired as a tech genius to fund a two-man neighborhood-watch program throughout New York, using the information the Machine slips to him through a secret back-door system. (Reese, a former Green Beret and CIA assassin who was set up for killing by his bosses, is handily equipped to take care of the rough stuff.) But if Finch and Reese have to pretend to be dead to keep watch over us, where does that leave the people who paid for the Machine and Reese’s lethal training?

Person Of Interest has gotten a lot better in the past year or so—Emerson and Caviezel have deepened their characters as the show revealed more about their backstories, and the violent action scenes, crisply staged and edited, are among the best on network TV. This has not gone unnoticed by critics; the show has picked up some measured respect from critics like Ken Tucker at Entertainment Weekly and June Thomas at Slate, but few of them have noted how its tone has shifted since the première (where the point seemed to be that the surveillance state wasn’t invasive enough) or how the series, unlike anything else on TV, reflects a particular part of the national mood. 

Depending on people’s politics, much of the country either woke up and smelled the coffee or panicked and went a little nuts after 9/11—so much so that there was a yearning for a national daddy figure who would do our thinking for us, if declaring that the Geneva Conventions obsolete qualifies as “thinking.” In some ways, this was lucky for CBS, which hasn’t always kept up with new TV trends. But the network knows how to turn out procedurals built around wise, government-approved father figures, whether it’s the military heroes of NCIS, the Hawaii Five-0 reboot, or the NYPD drama Blue Bloods, whose pilot included a scene in which the unquestionable daddy cop (Tom Selleck) declared that “advanced interrogations” have proven an effective way of dealing with evildoers.

Of course, the definitive post-9/11 action show was 24, which was in the works well before the terrorist attacks. When the series premièred, it charged confidently into a world where a heroic American agent beating the bejesus out of bad guys was no longer a stock character, but a new kind of hero. He invited water-cooler conversation about what’s right and what’s… well, maybe it’s not right, but if that bomb was planted in your neighborhood, wouldn’t you want someone like Jack Bauer on the case? Bauer had his enemies in the government, but they tended to be those familiar spoilsports who have long bedeviled men of action and moral resolve: politicians. They were the same weak sucks who wouldn’t let Rambo win the Vietnam War, or who fell all over themselves trying to pay Scorpio his ransom instead of just allowing Dirty Harry to do whatever he needed to do. Although not everybody can be Jack Bauer, most of his fellow agents, the people whose job it was to keep the nation safe, knew that a patriot and a can-do guy walked among them. The Homeland Security apparatus was, at its heart, a well-meaning, functioning machine. All that it required was freedom from oversight, regulation, and close observation from nosy reporters.

24 debuted less than two months after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and ended its run in the spring of 2010, when national anxieties over the economy had eclipsed the fear of terrorism. More than a year later, Person Of Interest premièred. The show began with post-9/11 jitters, but has explored a world where those jitters have been used to justify a rampaging security state polluted by corruption and career politics. The government spies on its citizens, but there’s little evidence in this Person Of Interest that it’s making them a hell of a lot safer. 

The New York Police Department is home to a criminal gang of rogue cops; their organization, known as “H.R.,” has been partly smashed, but the show harbors no illusions that it, or something like it, won’t return. In the pilot, bad cops catch Reese and hand him over to one of their own, Fusco (Kevin Chapman), for summary execution. Reese overpowers Fusco and blackmails him into being his mole, and over the course of the first season, the scowling, charmless Fusco became one of the show’s most touching characters, as he rediscovered how good it felt to protect and serve and be respected for it.

That kind of character fluidity was unknown in 24, which was black-and-white morally, but in a strange, self-serving way that spoke volumes about the moment in which it was made: What was morally acceptable was defined by whatever Jack Bauer, the protector, decided. Reese and Finch are more prone to self-doubt; in one episode, their other secret accomplice inside the police department, Carter (Taraji P. Henson), talks Reese into delivering a bad guy to justice instead of executing him. They’re also capable of screwing up: In the show’s first really good episode, Reese spends the hour protecting a mob target named Carl Elias (Enrico Colantoni), only to discover, too late, that Elias is a fast-rising mobster planning a hit of his own. 

Elias is one of a number of villains—including Amy Acker as a sociopathic hacker and Annie Parisse as Reese’s former CIA partner—who are doubly unsettling for the mirror images they present of the heroes: Like Reese and Finch, they’re independent operators who have broken free of the big networks and are using their own ingenuity to buck the system. Reese and Finch also pick up strays, like the frisky Zoe (Paige Turco) and likeably skeevy hacker Leon (Ken Leung), who disappear from the show for long stretches but are useful for their special talents and improvisational nature. 

By contrast, the crooked cops and cynical intelligence officers (such as Reese’s old CIA boss, who tried to retire him with a cruise missile) are faceless company men, dinosaurs willing to bring the world down rather than give up power. In traditional vigilante-justice fantasies, the cops have to bend the law to protect the innocent, because dumbass civil libertarians have rigged the system to protect the bad guys. In Person Of Interest, the civil liberties of the accused are the last thing on the cops’ minds; the problem is that, for many of them, protecting the innocent isn’t that much higher on the list.

Anger defined 24 as post-9/11 entertainment; Jack Bauer wasn’t about to let the bad guys win on his watch. Part of what defines Person Of Interest as post-post-9/11 entertainment is that its dominant, recurring emotional tone is regret. Both Reese and Finch have let people down badly in the past, and neither of them can ever do enough good to make it up. When the indestructible Reese is hooked to a bomb vest, or on the verge of being arrested, Caviezel drops his affectless stare and looks truly miserable and frightened, as if his character doesn’t know he’s the hero of a TV show and will be back next week. At the point of what he fears may be his last moments as a free man, the waste he’s made of his life seems to swell up and consume him. 

Finch, whose paranoia preceded 9/11, once had a partner whom he used as a front man in his dealings with the government while he was working on the Machine. The partner came to an unspecified bad end, and is seen only in flashbacks. In one recent episode, in a scene set in 2009, the partner is upset about the way the Machine has been used, and Finch, trying to get him to keep things in perspective, tells him that he, they—we—all made a lot of choices “seven years ago.” The implication is that our world is still being shaped by choices that were made hastily in a moment of crisis at the urging of people we trusted. Finch, who is smart and rich enough to live in any world he could make for himself, would dearly like it if he could just unmake them. But he can’t.

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