The evolution of Person of Interest into one of Science Fiction’s best shows
When LOST ended in 2010, seemingly every television network was trying to launch its successor. They went for the big Science Fiction extravaganza, like FlashForward or The Event, but one by one they failed. However, amidst all of the big budget spectacles, an unassuming procedural show appeared. It starred one LOST alum (Michael Emerson) and a guy who had played Jesus (Jim Caviezel), and it used its sci-fi premise to tell weekly standalone stories. But it was this show, Person of Interest, that would grow out to be one of television’s most ambitious Science Fiction series.
In this article we discuss the evolution of the show. Our intent is to get you to watch it, so while we do provide broad overviews of each season, all significant spoilers have been avoided.
Person of Interest started airing on September 22, 2011. The date is not of much significance, but the channel is. After all, CBS is known as the home of the procedural television series, and Person of Interest started out as just that. The basic premise of the show revolves around a computer system that was designed to identify terrorism before it happens. However, it also detects ordinary acts of violence that the government considers irrelevant. It spits out a number that belongs to either the victim or perpetrator of said act, and it is up to the tag team of Reese and Finch to save the day. They work in secret, and the only person on their trail is a homicide detective named Joss Carter.
In its early beginnings, Person of Interest is a basic case-of-the-week show. Finch receives a number and Reese is tasked with finding out whether this person is the victim or perpetrator in what is about to happen. Much of the excitement in the early episodes is derived from this mystery: is this random person a good or bad guy? In the end, the day is saved and Finch and Reese move on to the next case. It is basically the standard format of procedural television, with a slight hint of science fiction thrown in. It is not until later that the sci-fi elements become more important.
Because the format is so strict, what often makes or breaks these early episodes is the person of interest of that particular week. Notable guest stars include Linda Cardellini, Paige Turco, Enrico Colantoni and Amy Acker, of which the last two are especially important in taking the show to the next level. Credit goes to them for their compelling performances, and to the creators of the show for recognising what makes the show work and building from there. Colantoni’s character Elias in particular helps the show develop some much needed serialization in its first season. I once read somewhere that while not every episode of season 1 requires your concentration, make sure to pay attention when you hear the name Elias. Because something big is about to go down.
In the hands of less creative show runners it would have continued on for maybe another two seasons, before being unceremoniously cancelled. Luckily, Jonathan Nolan recognized the untapped potential at the core of the show, and slowly started developing its sci-fi elements more. Baby steps though.
In all honesty, the beginning of Season 2 is where I once gave up on the show and I don’t think I was alone in this departure. After the repetitive nature of Season 1, I made the mistake of placing the show aside, believing that it would slide into case-of-the-week Hell and never recover. It turned out that I was right about Season 2’s limitations, but I was very wrong about choosing to give up on the show entirely, even if I didn’t learn this until later on.
One very important change this season was the inclusion of Root. Although technically introduced in Season 1, Episode 23, Firewall, it wasn’t until Season 2 that she would truly be fleshed out. Although Root would grow into a much-loved ally, she first had to go through the villain teething phase. At this point in the narrative Root was a full blown antagonist, working in opposition to Reese and Finch, and the writers did a good job of allowing Amy Acker to explore the darker side of this character.
Season 1 had Elias – who would prove a decent enough villain to last almost the entire show, including being an ally at times – but if you compare Elias to Root, even at this early stage in the show, there really is no competition. Elias was smart and cunning, but Root was complex, brutal and wonderfully sociopathic, marking her out as the show’s best villain to date.
Other than the magic of Root, Season 2 proved to be very much bogged down in the same procedural trappings of Season 1. Every episode held its own case-of-the-week, some of which proved a little short of interesting. It wouldn’t be until Season 3 that the show would begin to show promise of breaking away from this a little.
Season 2 ended with two really strong showings that had Root at the center of the action. By keeping this momentum going, season 3 established right away that this was no accident. And once again there is a female guest star turned series regular who serves as the catalyst.
Sarah Shahi’s character Sameen Shaw was first introduced in season 2 in an episode that was very a-typical for Person of Interest, especially at a time where it was still firmly rooted in a procedural format. She takes center stage in an episode that features little of Reese and Finch, a daring choice that pays off immensely. Not only does the episode do a good job of expanding the show’s mythology, it shows that Shahi is clearly capable of leading the line if need be. The shift of focus is like a breath of fresh air that the show desperately needed.
It is no surprise then that Shaw quickly becomes a part of Team Machine at the start of season 3. And with great success. Her addition opens tons of avenues for new dynamics between characters. The relationship between Finch and Reese was still interesting of course, and it remained at the core of the show, but after two full seasons with each more than 20 episodes, there is the very real risk of things running stale. The addition of Shaw came at just the right time, and instead of things becoming dull the show became more exciting than ever.
Aside from the show firing on all cylinders in terms of the story and characters, season 3 is also where Person of Interest became more relevant than ever for things entirely out of their control. For two years the show had leaded with the phrase:
“You are being watched. The government has a secret system. A machine that spies on you every hour of every day.”
What seemed like a fun sci-fi premise turned out to be much closer to the truth than anyone expected, when Edward Snowden leaked clasified information about numerous global surveillance programs, many of which were run the National Security Agency. Suddenly the show became real.
This is where the reshaping of the show truly began. While Season 3 stuck in the mind only for that single significant death and for the introduction of Samaritan, viewers would come away from Season 4 with a far more robust experience.
This season doubled down on the Science Fiction content – raising the intellectual bar to a level that would feel at home among Golden Age Science Fiction literature. It also introduced character developments that melted the hearts of fans, allowing everyone to fall in love with our rebel alliance deeper than ever before.
This dual-stimulation of heart and mind created a perfect storm, which – in my view – even Season 5 never truly managed to live up to. To address the Science Fiction refashioning first, I believe this is best summed up by one single quote:
“Imagine what it will look like when two Gods go to war.”
Spoken by Finch ten episodes into the season, this is such a short statement, but such powerful one. It immediately forces the viewer to conjure up nightmarish visions of two enormous deities battling one another over a ravaged landscape. But the battle that Finch is talking about is one that holds far more finesse; a war that the creators likened to being closer to the Cold War than to anything else.
Finch is referring to the war between Northern Lights (The Machine) and the opposing machine Samaritan; two highly advanced artificial intelligences in an intellectual feud, in which even the smartest humans are used as pawns. It’s a classic Science Fiction fan’s dream and a move that I always hoped the show would steer towards.
But heart is just as important as intellect and even classic Science Fiction lived and died by the quality of its characters. This season not only allowed our team to gel as a unit more (rather than Finch and Reese versus the world), but it also gave us one of the greatest romances (and a same-sex romance too) ever seen in television: Sameen Shaw and Root (Samantha Groves).
Since these two characters crossed paths, Root had shown a keen affection for Shaw that very clearly came from a romantic place. Although fans hoped, few ever thought that Shaw would reciprocate those affections, or that the writers would go down this route. Then Epsiode 11, titled If-Then-Else, changed everything.
In a dangerous set-up where all of our characters’ lives were at risk, Shaw returned those affections, in one of the show’s most memorable scenes. It began a beautiful and tragic romance that ran on into Season 5 and into the hearts of Person of Interest fans forever.
Season 4 also elevated the quality of guest appearances on the show. It might just be that they are actresses aligned to my tastes, but to see Adria Arjona and Katheryn Winnick appear in the season ruptured my mind. Here were two outstanding actresses that I adored from other shows, who I never thought I’d see within a show like Person of Interest, and crucially: the characters created for them were truly exceptional.
Arjona played Dani Silva – an Internal Affairs Detective for the NYPD who would appear in two episodes within Season 4 (Episode 8, Point of Origin and Episode 13, M.I.A.). Dani was headstrong, highly intelligent and very cool under fire. I would have loved to have seen her take on a role as a permanent member of Finch’s team, but even in these two episodes alone she really made her mark.
Winnick appeared in only one episode of the show (Episode 18, Skip), playing Frankie Wells; a role that related to the case-of-the-week component within that particular episode. Wells was a bounty hunter who sought to hunt down and kill the man who murdered her brother. It was another female character who (like Root, Shaw and Silva) was incredibly self-assured and unrelenting.
When season 5 started, word had gone around that this was the final season of Person of Interest. Instead of the usual twenty-plus episodes this season consisted of just 13 episodes, but at least it meant that Jonathan Nolan would be able to craft a definitive ending to the show. In spite of its reduced order, case-of-the-week episodes are not altogether abandoned. However, the focus has thoroughly shifted from making you care about the Person of Interest in question, towards taking the already well-developed characters, the machine included, and preparing them for the endgame. Its function is now mainly to further the over-arching plot, to great success.
Aside from the main characters, it has to be mentioned that perhaps the most surprising and certainly most unique forms of character development is realised this season in its approach to the machine. From the beginning of the show it has been apparent that the machine differs significantly from other computer programs in that it seems to have a certain degree of empathy, as Finch has been teaching it to recognize the value of human life.
A clear example of this came to the forefront in the previously mentioned episode If-Then-Else, which can be seen as one of the best episodes out of the entire series and perhaps the whole of television. It shows the machine at its most machine-like, running endless simulations in order to determine the best possible outcome, but also at its most humanoid, in that it cares so much about keeping the team alive. The duality is brilliant.
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Season 5 builds on this by making the machine more involved than ever. In a stroke of Science Fiction genius, what started out as a plot device for a basic CBS procedural has grown out to be a fully fleshed out character in its own right. Its arc not only defines the series as an exceptional piece of sci-fi storytelling, but actually facilitates satisfying ends for the majority of its main characters.
Which is not to say that the only character that matters is the Machine. On the contrary, season 5 above all reminds us why we have grown to love these characters. Their resilience, their intelligence, their compassion and their sense of purpose. All are at display in what can be seen as a near perfect sendoff. It certainly stands out as one of the more emotional finales in recent memory, and all of that is thanks to these strong characters.
We hope that our exploration into the evolution of Person of Interest has spurred new viewers to attempt the show and also given veteran fans some fresh perspective on how this show edged its way into all of our hearts.
To be regarded as an achievement within television is one thing, but to be regarded as something exceptional within a genre is something altogether greater. When the Science Fiction of our age is looked back upon, we have no doubt that Person of Interest will be held in the highest regard, as an overlooked classic of our time.
Image credits: CBS