Posted May 17, 2014 by D. K. Holm
Boilerplate: As one season comes to an end and most of the network shows wrap up their 20+ episode seasons, the majority of networks engage in an annual ritual concerning the next season, called the “upfronts,” an orgy of advertising contract negotiations sealing deals “up front” of the forthcoming season, executive boasting, and conservative serial television retrenchment, with the major television stations, both free air and cable, engaged in last minute spit-and-polish touches on prime time schedules, shocking or disappointing cancellations, and requests for new shows in various degrees of season length. Thus high expectation for fall of 2014 and its new and unseen programs is blended with the sour distaste of what became of the season that commenced in fall of 2013 with equally high expectation. When fall rolls around, TV reviewers will gather to pass judgment on the new programs based usually on only a handful of finished episodes, generally the first four.
But isn’t it better to review a program at the end of its season? Especially these days when there is less need or urgency for immediate reviews, and when couch recliners with copious free time can binge on whole seasons of episodes, 24 hours of bliss – minus the 20 minutes of the each hour committed to the advertisements, blessedly removed from DVD sets. In short, in the first of some “outbacks,” this column will survey several of the networks programs now enjoying their season finales.
Glancing over the “upfronts” lists and even viewing some specific trailers for new shows reveals that most of the programs are derivative of already successful serials. Not only have CSI and Criminal Minds split amoebas, but many of the new programs are based on The Good Wife + Scandal, or are conspiracy theory programs, or are sitcoms based on The Goldbergs or any given generic romance comedy. But then, the vast wasteland – which is now much more vast than it was when Newton Minnow complained about three-network prime time TV back in the early 1960s – has rarely been known for success at originality. But of late the replication has been shameless. The two-episode season finale of Criminal Minds was a blatant re-working of HBO’s True Detective. If all the Laws and Order are “torn from today’s headlines,” than Criminal Minds and a few other serial killer shows wouldn’t exist without Hannibal Lecter or the example of numerous feature films. The monkey-seeing-then-doing has recently focused on extreme man-v.-women fight scenes, with both a recent The Americans and the finale of S.H.I.E.L.D. being just two of several shows that give women equality (I guess) in the knock down, drag out fight. I remember audiences being shocked when Sally Struthers was knocked out by an ungentlemanly punch in The Getaway; now few action shows are worthy of the label unless they first include some tough gals, then have them give blow-by-blow jobs to their male nemeses.
Jonathan Nolan’s Person of Interest has had as many as four violent femmes at any one time. The current two are Amy Acker as the once villainous Root now turned to good, and Sarah Shahi as Sameen Shaw, an old hit-girl colleague of the main character. When the show made its debut in the fall of 2011, it appeared to be a knock off of The Equalizer, in which reformed spies help the odd little guy, not unlike the way John Beresford Tipton passed out thick checks to the worthy needy on The Millionaire (another CBS effort). Person of Interest opened with some enthusiasm because Jonathan is brother to Christopher Nolan, he of the Batman cult, and clearly les freres thought along the same lines when it comes to government surveillance, if you think about Nolan’s last two Batman movies. Jonathan Nolan also had the weird luck to have the Bradley Manning and NSA scandals break as the show was airing, giving his ideas some urgency.
The premise is relatively simple. Wealthy computer genius Harold Finch (Lost‘s Michael Emerson) solicits the aid of rogue ex-CIA operative John Reese (Jim Caviezel) to prevent crimes against random citizens, the names of potential victims or perpetrators (they never know which, at first) calculated by a surveillance computer using a city’s CCTV and other data, a machine once designed for government use but eventually rejected. From week to week the duo, along with their two NYPD contacts, intervened in the lives of various folk, anyone from an armored car driver to an identity thief, from an indebted attorney to a snoopy building super. Like The X-Files, while these self-contained stories pop up, the show dwells concurrently on the “mythology” – Reese’s past, where Finch came from – and eventually adding Root as at first a nemesis looking for the sister computer to Finch’s and giving plot arcs to their two helpmeets, blackmailed corrupt cop Detective Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman) and Detective Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson).
But than as often happens, the individual stories gave way to the “soap opera” approach of one big story told over many weeks and months. Root kidnaps Finch; Russian mobsters attempt a gangland takeover; the government finally thinks it has cornered “the man in the suit” Reese, one of several suspects housed at Riker’s Island; and other arcs. One upshot is that Root and the computer bond somehow.
The recently concluded Season Three provided more of the same, alternating between a few cases and concluding with a big story. After the previous season, Root has now been locked up in a mental ward, and Carter busted down to patrolman thanks to the evil, corrupt cop unit HR, which once had Fusco in its clutches; Finch’s computer has “relocated,” so no one knows where it is; then Root escapes and teams up with Shaw. Reese rescues Shaw and Root is locked up in Finch’s bat cave, an abandoned library. The long-running HR subplot is resolved when Person of Interest pulls out of its virtual hat the old saw of the eliminated character, in this case Carter, who is shot down by the HR villains. Once that story is finished, a depressed death-gripped Reese goes rogue again and Fusco has to track him down in the northwest. Meanwhile, Camryn Manheim, called Control, and Saul Rubinek are introduced as a new villainess and her victim, the designer of a computer program called Samaritan that competes with Finch’s and which the government wants to employ for nefarious reasons. In an increasingly complex narrative, a corrupt senator, an activist group denouncing the bad guys, and the mastermind behind everything, billionaire Greer (played by Nolan’s uncle, John, whose career goes back to The Prisoner). That’s all a lot to take in over 22 episodes and I am not entirely confident I have all of it straight – especially while juggling at least two other shows every night.
Having done the “kill off a beloved character” trick, the season ends with all the bad guys winning, and the deployment of another old trick for creating between-season suspense, the team splitting up and scattering with new identities. This is a trick that Fox is fond of. Both House and Bones had a habit of ending a season with House‘s group disbanded or the doctor himself incarcerated, while Bones likes to blow its handful of eccentrics to the four winds. The first few episodes of the following season are then dedicated to the laborious process of patching back up all the holes and luring the despatched back to the familiar confines of their workspaces. Therefore, despite its au courant subject and premise and its dark tones, Person of Interest is as formulaic as every other show on the CBS assembly line. Don’t try to tell them the formulae don’t work, however. Their uniform dramas are consistently in the top 10, and their aged cliental seem to like the comfort of seeing the same blustery jingoism and pro-cop fever every week. Person of Interest is one of those shows that whenever you look up, someone is being held captive, which is perhaps better than 24, wherein whenever you look up someone is being tortured for information. Everyone dresses in the same black, sliming garb, and primary cinematographer David Insley strives for a cobalt blue look that is almost a version of black and white – it’s always winter in Mr. Insley’s New York City. And like the other famous Hoarse Whisperers of network TV (Keifer Sutherland, Alec Baldwin), Caviezel prefers to whisper his lines – though perhaps rightfully, given that television is an underplayer’s medium
Person of Interest‘s uniqueness of premise and politics is in danger of getting lost (or Lost) in the increasingly complicated conspiracies within conspiracies and multiple helpings of villains as it strays further and further from its “help the little guy” origins. One fears that the next step will be to pull a Friends or 90210 and have all the characters begin to have sex with each other and trade partners. I guess what I find missing from the show is intelligent debate about the ethics and morality of spying, and wish that then villains made a better case for themselves rather than just petting their white cats and declaiming love for their country. This season ends with a show trial between the activist group and the villains, but the “testimony” serves for the most part the function of reminding viewers about the premise of the show and how the Machine works rather than deeply debating issues.
I’m probably making the show sound worse or less enjoyable than it is, and in fact the lady cops in the show are usually quite good, and Caviezel is terrific in his monotone way as an action hero, doing the non-double parts of the gunfight and fistfight scenes with some flair. And Mr. Emerson is an appealing small screen actor with Mr. Nolan developing just the right character armor around him (although can we still keep calling TV the “small screen” when some TV monitors now are as big and sharp as an art house theater screen?). Like most shows, it should probably be only 10 to 13 rather than 22, which itself is already a drastic change from the good old days of the ’50s and ’60s when a season could be 32 weeks. Hey, TV, give yourself a break and work just as hard but on fewer episodes!