How to Fix ‘Person of Interest’

Posted: October 28, 2011 in Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , ,

I don’t dislike Person of Interest. It’s a mildly engaging time-waster, good enough for CBS work, anyway. But it’s not Good TV.

It is, in fact, annoyingly pedestrian TV, despite the fact that the premise is that a complex surveillance machine tells former-hobo-Batman who to hurt or help every week. This should be a lot better than it is.

Here’s what’s wrong with it, and then we’ll talk about how to fix it.

Let’s go ahead and start with Jim Caviezel.

In a perfect world, Caviezel would not even be an actor. He would be a disembodied voice that argues gently with a disembodied Billy Crudup on a device I call “The Greatest White Noise Machine in History.” 

I kid, I kid, except I really don’t. The guy’s got a gentle voice, but it’s matched with a gentle face and, in fact, eyelids so gentle that they only want to comfort the eyeballs they love so much by drooping over them like a snuggie.

The guy is bored to death of this role and it’s only like 6 episodes in, is what I’m saying.

Which is fair, since it would appear his agent was shitty enough to negotiate that he do only one awesome thing a week. One week, it might be chatting with a guy he hasn’t yet decided to kill, and let the episode close before we see that decision. Another, it might be a side-mission to take out some drug-runners that are pressuring an informant, a mission he takes on mostly in a fit of pique.

Again, these are great. These are actually the things that keep me paying any attention at all. But apparently it’s the only thing keeping any of Caviezel’s attention too, and that’s probably not good for anyone.

Which wouldn’t be a problem, if so much of the show wasn’t focused on him, when it really shouldn’t. After all, this really should be Michael Emerson’s vehicle, since nothing actually would happen without his character.

Emerson’s Mr. Finch role should really be that of Charlie from Charlie’s Angels – but told from his perspective. Which means if he really wants to do something productive with this magic machine that spits out social security numbers of people who need help and/or killing, he should probably have a couple more guys on staff than just Jim Caviezel.

And while Caviezel looks bored to tears, Emerson is clearly having a good time – though with his giant buggy eyes and jaunty sideburns, I could be getting the wrong impression. He’s even able to sell patently ridiculous lines like, “…And as you know, the Machine doesn’t SEE ‘accidents’!” Because he used to play Ben Linus, and that’s like a master’s course in saying crazy things like they’re normal.

But the difference is Emerson’s playing a man of mystery: an independently wealthy man hiding out as an office drone within his own company, an unexplained limp, a dead former partner who knows about the machine. Meanwhile, Caviezel, whose name is ACTUALLY “Mr. Reese,” like he’s the damn Riddler trying to rent a motel room, doesn’t actually have any character traits or potential story arc. He’s just the guy that’s there to punch people.

Which again – isn’t really a problem. A show structured around “He’s the brains/He’s the brawn/They Fight Crime” is perfectly fine, and the CBS viewing audience seems okay with it, hence the season pickup.

And I’m not against procedurals as long as they have some intriguing hook. One of my favorite hours of TV every week, after all, is The Mentalist, and I’ll still acknowledge that it’s “What if NCIS hired Dr. House to help them solve crimes?”

I watch and enjoy it because it’s acted well, tries its best not to insult your intelligence, and actually acknowledges that its lead is a sociopathic atheist whose only motivation is vengeance, but doesn’t try to “fix” him (which became House’s problem after season 4 or so).

It’s Just Interesting Enough, in other words.

But Person of Interest is a show where a mysterious man hired a shabby derelict who used to be the Government’s Most Dangerous Man to help or hurt people based on the random data-trash of an elaborate surveillance mechanism.

That’s a premise that, if it weren’t on CBS, would be extremely awesome and would also be canceled three episodes in.

So let’s talk about how the show can – and maybe will – become better. Who knows, they may already have any or all of these ideas prepped, they’re just waiting for everyone to become comfortable with the format before ignoring it to do something more interesting. It’s happened before. (Angel, for instance.)

Way I figure, there are five ways to go about this:

1. Deepen the Characters – This is the easiest way, since it doesn’t really change anything that’s already working. And obviously the show has plans for this, otherwise they wouldn’t drop so many hints about Finch’s post-9/11 history with The Machine, or bring in That Guy Who Played Goodwin on Lost as Finch’s former partner.

But Caviezel needs something to sink his teeth into. Right now, his primary motivation seems to be “Well, I need something to do and I don’t care about anything.” Mr. Reese needs some kind of mission outside of “I want to know more about that guy I’m working with.”
But not a love interest. Please god, not a love interest.

2. Make The Machine Mean Something – Someone on some message board rightly pointed out, “If The Machine is so important to saving lives, you’d think Finch would be using it for more than a Case of the Week in New York.”
So…what if Finch’s work with Reese is merely part of a pilot program? What if he’s been doing this same thing, either himself or by proxies, in every major city, and we simply haven’t seen it?

This is an idea CBS would LOOOOOVE, since it they’d hear it as “spin-off.” Person of Interest: Los Angeles, etc.

But it would raise a lot of interesting questions that would also deepen each character and his relationship with the other. Would Finch seem more Machiavellian? Would Reese feel betrayed? Or would he want to become more involved? Or would he want to know who was his counterpart in another city? OR! Would he KNOW of the counterparts and not trust THEM?

OR! At the end of every episode, Reese goes, "I'm heading back to my hobo life!" And regrows his hobo beard for the start of next week's episode.

A less drastic version – Finch learns that Reese hasn’t just been pulling his Shadow network business with the two cops who waste our time each week. Maybe he’s been doing this all over town. And maybe Reese is putting them on a counter-mission to learn more about Finch.


3. Take Out One of the Leads – Now, this is probably something only to be considered during sweeps/season finale/contract negotiations/Emerson finally gets that spy-neighbors show he and Terry O’Quinn keep shopping around.
But imagine – Reese gets killed on a mission, and Finch has to find a new partner. Maybe a new TEAM of partners.
Or better – Finch gets killed, and Reese suddenly has to figure out how to work The Machine, hiring on a series of techies while struggling in his new “management” role.

(This is the path I’m most hesitant about, since I spent half a year watching Fringe while shouting “Let’s kill Olivia!”, and now I am a huge Anna Torv booster. Which again, leads me to believe Jim Caviezel just needs something interesting to do.)

4. Bulk Up the Cast – You think Caviezel and Emerson get sick of bouncing dialogue back and forth with just each other? I’ll bet they do. Again, I’m going to Angel experience on this one – that show only became Good TV by season 3, when it became basically an ensemble piece with anywhere from six to eight equally important characters (or as I always watched it, The Wesley Adventures Featuring Angel).

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum is House or Dexter, where added folks’ stupid side-dramas drew attention away from the only guy worth watching (god I don’t CARE about Taub’s infidelity, dammit!).

5. Nemesis – I’m not even gonna bother elaborating on this one because you know damn well the writers room is already looking for special guest stars to cast for sweeps week. I’m just gonna go ahead and say “Hal Holbrook” for no good reason.

Well, that’s what I got. Anyone else watching this show? How would you fix it?

  1. Carl says:

    “The guy’s got a gentle voice, but it’s matched with a gentle face and, in fact, eyelids so gentle that they only want to comfort the eyeballs they love so much by drooping over them like a snuggie.”

    That’s going on his resume.

  2. Annonimous says:

    Some valid points in there, but mostly PoI creators outdone all you ideas already during course of the first season. And second season got story even deeper. Important lesson – don’t try to outsmart TV writers having seen only pilot.

  3. braak says:

    No, the point is that it takes an entire writer’s room a year and a half in order to outsmart Holland.

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