21 votes

Recommendation: Person of Interest (2011-2016)

I want to talk about Person of Interest. A CBS series created by Jonathan Nolan, more famously known for his work on Westworld (and brother of "that" Christopher Nolan, talent runs in the family). This is a spoiler-free post.

Premise: An ex-military badass is hired by a rich ex-usgov genius who built an AI that is plugged into the NSA's spying supernetwork, and can predict crime based on all the datapoints.

Strong similarities with: Westworld, Mr. Robot.

Person of Interest is a series that really took me by surprise. I didn't really care for Season 1, which I left running in the background after it was apparent to me that this was a very run-of-the-mill CBS police procedural. I gave it a chance based on a friend's recommendation, and because IT/sec references were accurate and didn't make me cringe. It also had an interesting premise which was written pre-snowden and raised some interesting philosophical questions on privacy and crime prevention.

Then towards the Season 1 finale, the music got pretty good, the scenes were very action-packed and the series started feeling like it was getting very entertaining. So I kept watching.

Without spoiling: throughout Season 2, the series actually completely shifts genre almost unnoticeably, from "generic police procedural" to "long-arc Westworld-style tech scifi".

I was stunned by how smooth the genre transition was. Of all the series I watched, it's something truly unique to that one, which is one of the reasons I rate it as one of the best TV series in my catalogue. It's also, from what I heard, Nolan's strategy from the get-go in order to get a very unique show greenlit on a "safe" network like CBS.

By the end of the series, Person of Interest had inspired me. Made me extremely interested in AI and data. It affected my work and the way I think about the world. POI really toes the scifi line by taking concepts which are possible, but not there yet and explores the possibilities (again, Westworld); unlike most other Sci-Fi shows which take abstract ideas of what we may want to see in the future, regardless of how possible/reasonable they are.

POI does require some suspension of disbelief. You have to accept the trope of a "supergenius" who can build an AI like this all on his own, for example. I think that's fine, and I found that the show was very rigorous at taking only practical shortcuts with very little fridge logic.

I keep mentioning Westworld and that's no accident. POI predates WW and it feels that WW was a continuation of Nolan's ideas about the implications of AI, in a much higher budget setting. (And as an aside, if you haven't watched Westworld, you should)

Tag spoilers in comments :)

15 comments

  1. [4]
    Adys
    Link
    I've been slowly rewatching Person of Interest. And by slowly I mean binging hard. I just finished Season 2. It's my first rewatch since I finished the series five years ago. Man, I remembered...

    I've been slowly rewatching Person of Interest. And by slowly I mean binging hard. I just finished Season 2. It's my first rewatch since I finished the series five years ago.

    Man, I remembered Season 1 being a lot more boring than it was. Turns out, it's a very good season, just a different genre. Knowing what's coming, what Nolan is building up, got me incredibly hyped. You see the glimpses, the hints throughout the season, you just don't catch it on the first watch.

    Without spoiling: throughout Season 2, the series actually completely shifts genre almost unnoticeably, from "generic police procedural" to "long-arc Westworld-style tech scifi".

    Re-living this … oh man. Even better than the first time. I kept looking for the … the moment where the shift happens. There's so many of them throughout the season. I think it really happens mid-season 2, but it really is so gradual, and it was SO MUCH FUN to catch every moment.

    Season 2 spoilers Of course, the Season 1 finale ending on Reese forcing The Machine to help him with Finch, was a huge hint of things to come. It's the first true hint that it's a proper general AI, and that it can alter its own directives to some extent.

    I think if I were to mark the first episode that shifts the genre, it would be S2E16, "Relevance". It introduces Shaw, shows the "relevant" numbers and how their process works. And from there, the season almost entirely focuses on either the story with HR or the virus. They do throw a couple of Numbers of the Week in there, but they tie it all in with the virus, hinting at the fact that there is a constant problem. Storytelling style fully shifts from S2E19, at which point I don't think it ever really changes back.

    The moment that truly did it for me was Root, standing in the machine's memory, saying "We're in an external hard drive made of people and paper".

    Looking through references I incidentally came across this article (HEAVY on spoilers), which says exactly the same:
    Gizmodo link - Heavy spoilers - All seasons

    The first season of Person of Interest was basically just a crime-fighting show with a kind of nifty plot device in the form of the Machine. It even had the prototypical New York villain groups, such as corrupt cops and politicians and the mob. It seemed like exactly the kind of procedural that fit in easily on CBS.

    The catalyst for the show’s change was [SNIP] in the first season’s finale. […] it put the Machine, its intelligence, and the ethics of the U.S. government using it at the center of an ideological battle. […] The idea of the Machine as neutral or just a plot device kind of ended, because suddenly it started directing the action.

    In retrospect, that’s the exact moment the show stopped just being a crime show with a clever conceit and became a great hard science fiction show. But when season two premiered, it still seemed like a network-approved procedural because that season continued to largely focus on human threats. […] It was at almost the exact halfway point in the series, in the middle of season three, that Person of Interest took advantage of all the build-up about AI it had meticulously laid out.

    Can you hear me?

    6 votes
    1. [3]
      Qis
      Link Parent
      Okay FINE I downloaded. I caught a recommendation for this a while ago but bounced off the premise as implausible and the dialogue of ep 1 as very stilted.. but I'll give it another shot tonight

      Okay FINE I downloaded. I caught a recommendation for this a while ago but bounced off the premise as implausible and the dialogue of ep 1 as very stilted.. but I'll give it another shot tonight

      1. [2]
        Adys
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        There's a little bit of work to do to make the premise work, but it's plausible. Think of it this way: It's science-fiction: It presupposes that General AI has been created. Finch himself is...

        the premise as implausible

        There's a little bit of work to do to make the premise work, but it's plausible. Think of it this way:

        1. It's science-fiction: It presupposes that General AI has been created.
        2. Finch himself is completely implausible. But if you think of Finch as representing a (large) team of people, it becomes possible. It's in fact pretty common in dramatized documentaries to replace a handful of people that share goals/concepts with a single person. (Citizenfour comes to mind)

        the dialogue of ep 1 as very stilted

        Definitely. This one gets better pretty quickly, though Reese always has that "dark broody badass platitudes" feel to him. But in a charming way, after the first few episodes.

        4 votes
        1. Qis
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          I'm on episode four. Linda Cardellini's in this one?? edit: I'm on episode ten.

          I'm on episode four. Linda Cardellini's in this one??

          edit: I'm on episode ten.

  2. starchturrets
    Link
    It was rather case-of-the-weeky at first, but by the end, it was making the viewer ponder all sorts of questions about death and morality and existence. Truly a good show.

    It was rather case-of-the-weeky at first, but by the end, it was making the viewer ponder all sorts of questions about death and morality and existence.

    Truly a good show.

    5 votes
  3. [9]
    LukeZaz
    Link
    Honestly, never liked this show. Granted that I only paid a limited amount of attention, but I honestly loathe inaccurate tech stuff in shows and this show seemed absolutely loaded with it. It's...

    Honestly, never liked this show. Granted that I only paid a limited amount of attention, but I honestly loathe inaccurate tech stuff in shows and this show seemed absolutely loaded with it. It's been a while since I've seen anything of it so I'd have to rewatch it to pinpoint any other thoughts, but I don't really want to bother. The episodes were interesting, sure, but I still found myself constantly annoyed by various things throughout such that I really don't care to see it again.

    (Disclaimer: I hate most TV and movies in general.)

    3 votes
    1. [8]
      Adys
      Link Parent
      For context, I'm a software engineer, have been for 17 years. I've worked in AI, security, networking, all the relevant fields that this show touches. I'm telling you now, I could not even sort of...

      For context, I'm a software engineer, have been for 17 years. I've worked in AI, security, networking, all the relevant fields that this show touches. I'm telling you now, I could not even sort of watch it if I thought it was "inaccurate". I certainly wouldn't be praising it like I am.

      It's in fact full of very accurate easter eggs. Remember that scene in The Matrix where they use nmap, and how much praise it got? POI is full of references to real world utilities, hacks, viruses, events and theoretical concepts.

      Minor spoilers - Season 2 scene You know how in some TV shows, you have a guy at a computer getting "hacked, live" and their screen glitches, scrambles and shuts off? POI doesn't do that. With one* exception. Finch is on the laptop, the screen starts glitching, and he realizes they're "hacking the battery controls". This is of course a [reference to a real hack](https://www.wired.com/2011/07/apple-battery/). It's pretty funny, they duck like it's a huge bomb that's going to blow, and it just midlly sparks and catches fire. Subtle lampshading.
      • There's another exception. I won't mention it here because it's core to the story.

      It does take some creative liberties: Simplifies some stuff, sometimes misuses jargon to make things easier on the audience (eg. using "firewall" as a catch-all word for itsec). IMO these are acceptable; you're watching a story, not a handbook on how to hack the NSA.

      There's definitely also a bit of suspension of disbelief to keep up with. I think this has to do with the over-dramatization, and IMO the fact it's a CBS series is partly responsible. For example, Reese is essentially a batman-type superhero, and you just have to go with it. HR is an absurdly evil ultra-resistant organization. And the pacing of single episodes often skimps on dealing with the difficulty and magnitude of what our protagonists are doing.

      These are also forgivable flaws I think. They would be the nail in the coffin of a bad series, but in such a good one they're simply … imperfections. Nolan with full creative freedom and budget gave us Westworld.

      I didn't enjoy my time with Season 1 the first time around either. Had I known what was coming, I would have been glued to the screen like I have been on this rewatch. For what it's worth, I don't think I've heard of a single person that got through the "crime procedural" portion of the show and into the scifi, who wasn't blown away by the quality. I'm usually the first one to say "There's so many good shows out there, don't waste your time watching something you don't quickly enjoy". POI might be the one exception.

      5 votes
      1. [7]
        tomf
        Link Parent
        is this a series where every episode should be watched, or should I look out for a list of skippable episodes?

        is this a series where every episode should be watched, or should I look out for a list of skippable episodes?

        1 vote
        1. [6]
          Adys
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          A fair amount of season 1 can be skipped pretty safely, but all episodes have pretty strong character development, even if they don't always have narrative development. Starting with mid season 2,...

          A fair amount of season 1 can be skipped pretty safely, but all episodes have pretty strong character development, even if they don't always have narrative development. Starting with mid season 2, nothing is skippable however.

          If you want i could write you a list of safe skips, i guarantee you however that you would go back to rewatch and probably end up regretting the skips :)

          2 votes
          1. [5]
            tomf
            Link Parent
            this seems to be the popular opinion. I should just go through the series slowly and not as a binge. here's a list of suggested skippable episodes * S01E05 - Judgement * S01E08 - Foe * S01E12 -...

            this seems to be the popular opinion. I should just go through the series slowly and not as a binge.

            here's a list of suggested skippable episodes * S01E05 - Judgement * S01E08 - Foe * S01E12 - Legacy * S01E14 - Wolf and Cub * S01E16 - Risk * S01E17 - Baby Blue * S01E18 - Identity Crisis * S02E03 - Masquerade * S02E04 - Triggerman * S02E06 - The High Road * S02E07 - Critical * S02E08 - 'Til Death * S02E09 - C.O.D. * S02E17 - Proteus * S03E04 - Reasonable Doubt * S03E14 - Provenance * S03E18 - Allegiance * S04E03 - Wingman * S04E14 - Guilty

            From the four or five lists I compiled, these had a vote of at least 2. I put off watching the series for fear of tainting Ben Linus and Edmond Dantes / Jesus... though, from what I understand, this could tie in to Ben Linus and possibly Jesus if Jesus were a little more on the action side of things.

            2 votes
            1. [4]
              Adys
              Link Parent
              Those skips make sense. I would remove Legacy and Critical from that list, though. I have an alternative one for you: Assuming you're not interested by the NYPD/Elias/HR story arc and just want...

              Those skips make sense. I would remove Legacy and Critical from that list, though.

              I have an alternative one for you: Assuming you're not interested by the NYPD/Elias/HR story arc and just want the scifi story. (I don't think it's a good idea to skip those arcs because they're core to the first two seasons, but just in case you're interested).

              In Season 1, you can skip everything except these:

              • S01E01 Pilot
              • S01E02 Ghosts
              • S01E10 Number Crunch
              • S01E11 Super
              • S01E12 Legacy
              • S01E13 Root Cause
              • S01E22 No Good Deed
              • S01E23 Firewall.

              Then in Season 2, you can skip episodes 03, 04, 05, 06, 08, 09, and that's it. Starting with S02E10 the series shifts its storytelling to the point that skipping episodes will leave you without context for the next ones, and starting with S02E16 the focus is almost entirely on the Machine.

              I hope this gives you an idea of what to expect.

              1 vote
              1. [3]
                tomf
                Link Parent
                ok rad! this is perfect. Thanks so much!

                ok rad! this is perfect. Thanks so much!

                2 votes
                1. [2]
                  Adys
                  Link Parent
                  Please report back how you watch it and what you thought. If it's not obvious, I'm a sucker for this series 🙃

                  Please report back how you watch it and what you thought. If it's not obvious, I'm a sucker for this series 🙃

                  2 votes
                  1. tomf
                    Link Parent
                    you're not alone in that either. I've got a bunch of folks in a chat that are always going on about it. I'll report back!

                    you're not alone in that either. I've got a bunch of folks in a chat that are always going on about it.

                    I'll report back!

                    2 votes
  4. bitter_buffalo
    Link
    I just watched it for the 2nd time. At first, I had to ignore the plot holes and just go with it. Great show.

    I just watched it for the 2nd time. At first, I had to ignore the plot holes and just go with it. Great show.

    2 votes