Person Of Interest started out with a promising sci-fi premise, a couple of intriguingly mismatched lead actors, and a New York skyline wreathed in post-Sept. 11 paranoia. And for at least the first half of its first season, it seemed pretty much content to stand on those elements. The show has developed very slowly, having faith that viewers would be captivated by Michael Emerson doing his mysterioso act and Jim Caviezel supplying the beatdown of the week, while it set its tent posts down, good and solid. Many viewers were less than captivated, but by the end of the first season, the show was going places. It now has a fully staffed supporting cast of regular and recurring characters, and in its pulpy way, it has a vision: Eight million stories in the naked city, many of them involving murderous gangs and lethal hand-to-hand combat, with secret wars going on all the time. None of this is to take anything away from the importance of two things: Emerson’s mysterioso act never gets old, and for a guy best known for having played Jesus, Caviezel gives excellent beatdowns.
Last season’s finale raised the stakes by bringing in everybody’s favorite sexy-mouse super-villainess, Amy Acker, as a sociopathic tech genius who has learned about the workings of the machine and managed to abduct Emerson’s Mr. Finch. (Because Acker is also everybody’s favorite sexy-mouse imperiled damsel, she had no problem getting in position to snatch Finch by convincing our heroes that she was the next potential victim on their protection list.) Acker and Emerson’s scenes together have a perverse humor that comes from her assumption that they ought to be able to relate to each other because they have comparable IQs, even though Finch is governed by empathy and she rejects that quality as a “flaw.” “It must feel like talking to ants to you,” she says, referring to ordinary people (and channeling Harry Lime in The Third Man). If this kind of dialogue is supposed to bring her and Finch closer together, it doesn’t work. “You’re a murderer and a thief,” he says. “My mom told me to follow my talents,” she retorts, later clarifying her position: “I don’t enjoy killing people, but I don’t fell very bad about it, either.”
Finch and Caviezel’s Reese are separated for the whole of this episode, which gives them a chance to interact with new partners and show how well they can do on their own. Surprisingly, this results in one of Caviezel’s strongest episodes—except for the odd flashback, Emerson is relegated to the sidelines, listening to Acker lecture him about the inferiority of human beings (“We’re just bad code”) and her Dr. Strangelove-style worship of the machine. (It got her attention by foiling one of her plans, something she knew no human could do.) Reese, having been reassured that there is a “contingency” in place in case of a crisis like this, tries to use the machine to help him find Finch, and is only slightly amused when this instead leads him to another person in danger. “I’m the contingency. The backup. He didn’t want me to find him if anything went wrong. He just wants me to keep rescuing people.” He says all this to himself in front of a bunch of Aryan Nation thugs, in his usual muted, deep-toned inside voice. Christian Bale’s Batman would ask him to clear his throat and speak the hell up.
From the start of the show, Reese’s Terminator-like indomitability has carried a certain humor. (He gets necessary last-minute assistance from someone else just often enough for it to almost be credible.) So it’s a step in the right direction that the show is ready to acknowledge this and allow it to be funny on purpose. The bad guys—they’re looking to kill their former accountant, played by Ken Leung, who used to bring the pepper to the later seasons of Lost—listen to Reese, who has introduced himself as a cop, then offer him a bribe to step out of the way. “You know,” he says, “the guy who owned this badge probably would have taken that offer, but I’m not him.” Who are you, asks the chief bad guy. Reese makes an “ask a silly question…” face and says, “The guy who shot him and stole his badge.” The dust-up that follows is a reminder of how quick and crisp the action scenes on this show can be, but I prefer a scene later in the episode, which makes a shared joke with the audience about how silly yet satisfying these passages can be. Badly outnumbered in a room full of toughs, Reese adjusts his features to signal that he’s just claimed the upper hand. What follows is pure Looney Tunes: There’s a cut to the exterior of the building, we hear punch-up sound effects, and then a plug-ugly comes flying out through a window. Even better is the moment when, fed up and angry that the machine won’t help him find Finch, Reese just stands in the street glowering at a security camera. It’s like a staring contest between two Mack trucks.
There’s a moment in My Dinner With Andre when Wallace Shawn, having spent half the night listening to his friend gas on about endlessly searching for spiritual transcendence at far corners of the world, talks about the mysterious complexity of everyday life and says something like, “if you could just find out exactly what goes on in the cigar store next door, it would blow your brains out.” Person Of Interest is sort of like that, except that what you’d probably find out is that the cigar store next door is a front for Russian gangsters smuggling women to the Balkans to raise money for a Chechen terrorist cell. I’m not suggesting that Finch and Reese are modeled on Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. I am suggesting that, if Emerson and Caviezel were to have themselves filmed reenacting scenes from that movie while in character, it would make for a hell of an Internet video.