Person of Interest (S1 to S5)

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system that spies on you every hour of every day…”
quote from the show’s intro

My records indicate that I was watching this series in 2012. At the time, the premise seemed like just that, a premise: A guy gets some information about something bad that will happen unless he can prevent it, which then of course he sets out to do. That’s the same as the premise of a show I watched in the 1990s called Early Edition. In that show, a guy gets a magical newspaper and thus can read tomorrow’s news today.

Nobody reads newspapers anymore. In Person of Interest, the protagonist’s magical source of information isn’t yesterday’s technology, it’s tomorrow’s: artificial superintelligence.

See below for more on the show and what I thought of it.

TLDR? I think it’s a fantastically entertaining show, in part because it’s funny and in part because it’s deadly serious.

What is Person of Interest about?

The two main characters of the series, which takes place in the 2010s, are Harold and John. Harold is the geek who built the AI, and John is his capable agent. Harold built the AI, which he calls “the machine,” for the US government. Its main purpose is to predict acts of terror (like the September 11th attacks in 2001) by analyzing massive amounts of data. However, as Harold’s voice explains in the intro: “It sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people. The government considers these people irrelevant. We don’t. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You will never find us. But victim or perpetrator, when your number’s up, we’ll find you.”

At the rate of (usually) one per episode, the machine spits out the social security number of someone in New York City who is about to be involved in a violent crime: the “person of interest.” Although Harold is so good with computers that he can hack anything, he’s weak due to injury and unfamiliar with the use of weapons. To prevent the violent crimes predicted by his machine, he relies on John, who has extensive military training.

In Season 1, Harold sends John after a defense attorney investigating police corruption, the child survivor of an assassination, an ex-soldier turned bank robber, a serial rapist, the kidnappers of a judge’s son, a fixer holding evidence of company misdoings, a schoolteacher who witnessed a mob shooting, a former Stasi agent, a cop targeted by an organized crime boss, some bystanders who stole drug money from a car crash, a creepy superintendent, an attorney concerned with wrongful imprisonment, a disgruntled constituent of a local congressman, the teenage younger brother of a gang victim, a smuggler, an investment trader, a six-month-old baby, a grifter, an armored-car driver, a government security analyst, a therapist for the wealthy, and a bunch of crime family bosses.

The show could have been just an endless series of unrelated actiony adventures—like the surprisingly dull 1980s show Knight Rider, which was also supposed to be about AI-powered justice. But surely the gimmick of the ambiguity as to whether the person of interest is the guilty party or the innocent one would have worn thin. Actually, the show has a lot more going for it.

There’s a lot of backstory. We gradually learn how the machine was built and how Harold developed into a man whose sole purpose in life seems to be to help people. We learn about John’s job as a black-ops hitman, the fate of his relationship with the woman he loved, and his seeming need for redemption through good works. The rest of the main cast get plenty of character development too: a dirty cop and a good cop; a government-employed remorseless killer and an independent one. You can’t not care about what happens to these people (and their dog) when the various stakeholders in society (mainly corrupt cops and criminals, but also politicians and government agents) start to feel the impact of the machine.

I liked the humor and energy of the earlier episodes. The show becomes darker in tone as the stakes increase and the plot thickens. (Apparently this is a common pattern; it was pointed out on the TV Tropes page for Person of Interest.) In the darker episodes, the themes are stronger.

And the themes are what make the show so interesting.

What is Person of Interest *really* about?

The show is really about life-and-death moral choices, with the strong overall message that human lives are precious.

The characters constantly struggle with questions of responsibility for their actions and for the lives of strangers and those they care about.

These are some recurring motifs.

The self and others.
It would be tough to live after watching a loved one die when you could have stopped it. What about an innocent stranger? Or a crowd of strangers? What about a criminal? Who would you die to protect?

Purpose and meaning.
The real question is not what would you die for, but what you are living for in the first place. Death isn’t inherently meaningful, our choices and relationships while we’re alive are.

Truth and lies.
Lying is bad. But what if you’re lying to protect someone? What if telling the truth would get you sent to jail for doing the right thing? What if telling the truth would get you killed?

Technology and security.
Mobile phones, digital cameras, computers, and electronic security systems are wonderful things, but they’re just tools. If they can keep you safe, they can also be exploited to put you in danger.

Privacy and safety.
Information is power. Surveillance in urban life and access to personal data can be used by law enforcement to find criminals. But how to prevent abuse of this power? More safety might mean too little freedom.

Vigilantism and legal justice.
There are a lot of exciting and satisfying stories, even true ones, about people who took the law into their own hands. But we have processes for a reason: Vigilantes are, after all, just as biased and fallible as the rest of us.

Good government and corruption.
Governments are supposed to protect people. When they succeed, do they do so by acceptable means? And when they fail, what recourse does anyone have? How does an individual navigate a compromised system?

Defensive and offensive violence.
In violent conflicts, vigilantes and law enforcers shoot and injure people, and sometimes those people die. To what extent is this justifiable? What responsibility do they have to protect the lives of aggressors?

Punishment and rehabilitation.
How should criminals be punished for the harm they caused? What if they were just following orders? What if they regret their actions? What if they have changed their behavior as well as their attitude? Does anyone ever change?

Artificial superintelligence and the future.
Should we create artificial superintelligence (ASI)? Is it too late to avoid doing so? Who gets to decide? What good and evil will result from the actions of one or more ASIs? What can be done to ensure the safety of humanity?

Reasons to Watch Person of Interest

  • You like the setting (New York City)
  • You like the premise (a geek hires a hitman to save lives using information from a mysterious AI)
  • You like the characters (a computer genius, an invincible ex-military guy in a suit, a former dirty cop, a good cop, two reformed killers, and a dog)
  • You like the tone (the dialog is wry, the violence is stylized, and the danger is real but the characters are optimistic, loyal, and generally successful)
  • You like the plots (each week, the good guys save somebody; but they’re involved in larger conflicts that involve the whole city or the whole nation)
  • You like the themes (lives are important, corruption and aggression are bad)

I’ve seen the whole thing twice now, but I still want to buy the discs and put them on my shelf: I’d watch the show again.