“Pilot”

This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Zack Handlen, who’ll review the show week to week, and Ryan McGee talk about Person Of Interest.

Person Of Interest debuts tonight on CBS at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Zack: There’s a key piece of information you’ll need if you want to get much pleasure out of the Person Of Interest pilot. Well, that’s not quite right—it’s not information, exactly. It’s more like perspective. This is a silly hour of television, and it doesn’t seem to be aware of quite how silly it is, which is a problem; worse, it’s also an intermittently generic hour, where stock character types go about stock betrayals and schemes without leaving much of an impression. The basic concept that drives the show skirts absurdity, and, with a final twist, threatens to tip into the abyss. James Caviezel plays a lethal weapon ex-government agent with all the charisma and intensity of a man debating lunch options. Poor Michael Emerson does his best, and he’s easily the best thing about the episode, but even he isn’t given a whole lot to do here. 

So, that perspective I was talking about? Well, Person Of Interest airs on CBS, and like a lot of shows on CBS, it looks, at first glance, like a cop drama. There are cops in the pilot (including Taraji P. Henson, who’ll presumably play a bigger role in episodes to come), everything’s shot in that washed-out blue filter that seems so prevalent in cop dramas; and the bad guys here, not to spoil anything, are standard cop-drama filler material. But this isn’t a cop drama, and it’s not even a government-agency crime drama (which is basically just a cop drama with higher stakes and better toys.) This is a superhero show. There are no tights on display, no sudden bursts of inhuman strength or speed, but, as the perpetually scowling John Reese, Caviezel is a Batman without the cape. The mysterious Mr. Finch (Emerson) gives him his mission, and Reese jumps into action, with little interest in due process or search and seizure laws. These are guys that get stuff done, and that’s really, at its heart, what superheroes are.

Or maybe, if you want to get even more specific, Person Of Interest is best viewed as a throwback to the pulp heroes that served as ancestors to Superman and his ilk. There’s a definite Shadow-like quality to Reese and Finch, only instead of relying on a team of informers to keep them up to date, they use a web of modern technology, from security cameras to, well, other security cameras, and then still other security cameras. There’s a lot of recording going on here—and while there’s more to Finch’s system that video, the occasional surveillance footage sprinkled throughout the episode is decent way to establish the constant presence of another leading figure working along side our heroes, one whose identity is kept secret through much of the episode. I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that the pilot’s big reveal moment is both utterly ridiculous, and easily my favorite scene in the show. It’s a reveal that I think will probably turn some people right off (and you might already be spoiled for it, but it doesn’t come out till roughly three-quarters through the episode), and understandably so. There’s a creepy undercurrent to the idea, and it’s a little distasteful in the way the show is willing to use 9/11 to motivate its leads—but then, it makes a certain sense as well. 

But I’m being vague about story details which I’ll be addressing in more detail in the weeks to come. (Aren’t you excited?) For now, at least, the basic premise: John Reese is a professionally sad man who gets picked up by the police one day for getting into a fight with a bunch of jerkwad kids on the subway. Reese handles himself very, very well in that fight, and for good reason—he’s a former covert op, currently making a living drinking himself to death in the bowels of the city. A fancy lawyer springs him from jail, and brings him to meet a mysterious billionaire named Mr. Finch. Finch knows quite a lot about Reese, and he has a job offer to make: There’s a list of people, and Finch knows that those people will soon be part of something bad. He doesn’t know exactly how or why or what or, well, anything really, but he knows just enough of the future to want to prevent it, and to do that, he needs someone who knows how to deal with bad times. He’s got the brains taken care of—he needs the brawn, which Reese is in an excellent position to provide.

I’m going to warn you right now: It’s almost certain that I’m making this show sound a lot more interesting than it actually is. This is a pilot with quite a few problems, and when a drama pilot has this many issues, odds are against it making them work over time. A comedy can turn into a great show after a lousy pilot because comedies are about characters and relationships and a general vibe, things which a show can grow into, but dramas are about story and structure, and those really need to be in place from the start. Here? Not so much. As mentioned before, Caviezel isn’t a very compelling lead. When the script calls for him to be a badass (which it does a few times, and the action scenes here are short but fun to watch), he does fine so long as he doesn’t actually need to say anything. But every time he speaks, there’s a dull monotone that kills tension dead on the spot. It’s fine that he’s a sad panda of a man, since he lost someone close to him, but there should be some dynamism in his performance, especially by the end where he’s supposedly found some purpose. 

As for Emerson: Well, he’s certainly the big draw to get me to watch this. There are glimmers and hints of Emerson’s usual brilliance here, but he’s also playing a stock character, and he spends too much of the episode looking nervous in front of a computer while Reese goes out and does the real work. Which isn’t to say that Finch needs to be an ass-kicker to be compelling, but one of Emerson’s great strengths as an actor is his ability to play off other performers—watching him earn the trust of someone who has every reason to believe he’s lying through his teeth was one of the many pleasures of his signature role on Lost, and if he’s stuck in the hatch, I mean abandoned library, he’s not going to be interacting with much of anybody but Reese. And Reese is no Terry O’Quinn. (That said, there’s something funny about hearing Emerson just say the name “John” a lot.)

And the rest? I’m sure we’ll have ample opportunity to dissect the serious silliness at the heart of this show—it’s a sort of science-as-magic premise that only works if you accept you’re watching a heightened or alternative reality, and there’s a concerted effort throughout the pilot to keep things as grim and “real-ish” as possible. But while I don’t think the POI pilot is good, I think there is some promise in it; and even though I realize the odds are against that promise ever being realized, I’m keeping my fingers crossed. To work, this show will need to get a little (or a lot) weirder, figure out how to use Emerson better, and find some way to deal with Caviezel. I don’t really think it’ll do any of those things, but I’m going to keep hoping anyway. That’s my favorite part of the fall TV season, really—imaging what could be before having to deal with what is.

Stray observations:

  • Mild spoiler time—one of the twists of the episode is that Finch’s list of people (which is just Social Security numbers) isn’t solely a list of victims. Some of the people aren’t going to suffer a violent crime, they’re going to cause one, and that is just flat out ridiculous. It’s clearly an attempt to create ambiguity down the road, as well as open up story possibilities, but all it really does is raise more questions about Finch’s magical system. I mean, how does it decide which SSN to list? Does it flip a coin between “victim” and “murderer”?

Ryan: Lost fans didn’t get the rumored Terry O’Quinn/Michael Emerson show they craved this fall. Instead, they got what sounded on paper like the next best thing: The Ben Linus And Jesus Power Hour! Throw in co-creators J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, and CBS seemed to have on its hands an hour that could potentially expand both its dramatic universe and its audience base. Turns out that all the excitement around the show will have to abate, at least for the time being. While there are far worse dramatic pilot debuting this fall, I’m not sure there’s a more disappointing one than Point Of Interest.

It’s not that the idea of the show is inherently flawed: In a day in age where paranoia runs rampant, a show that plays and preys upon those fears gives it a contemporary edge amidst a sea of procedurals that seem designed for a long syndication life. But if anything, the show fits too well within the CBS house style. For a man that concocted (for better or worse) some of the longest running serialized stories in recent television, Abrams manages to place Michael Emerson and James Caviezel within a rigid structure that seemingly defies long-term narrative planning. “The numbers never stop coming,” Finch tells Reese, which sounds as much a pitch from Abrams to the network as a mantra by which to tell an inexhaustible series of standalone stories set in New York City.

The problems? They are many. The primary one involves the central flaw of Finch’s methodology for predicting crime; it’s like basing Chuck around an Intersect that would arbitrarily turn Mr. Bartowski into either a super agent or a drooling idiot. Sure, it gives the show an excuse to spend 40 minutes figuring out what’s going on, but it’s an arbitrary obstacle that probably won’t pass the smell test for most viewers. Throw in an almost comatose Caviezel (who may be attempting to play “shellshocked” but comes off as playing “I just took three Benadryls before this take”) and an underused Taraji P. Henson, and what’s left is a show that has some satisfying moments of violence but little steak behind the sizzle. If a larger arc arises concerning Finch’s true motives, or a nemesis arises that tries to use the machine for its own purposes, then maybe Person Of Interest will rise above its current state. But given the network it’s on, one can hardly count on that happening, despite the pedigree of talent involved both in front of and behind the camera.

Zack’s grade: B-
Ryan’s grade: C+

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