Friday, September 23, 2011

Person of Interest: Ep 1

Welcome to the first post on Person of Interest, J.J. Abrams’ latest show, and one I hope will last longer than most new series. I plan to blog on this show every week, with the help of my friend Chris Doran, who has generously agreed to come on here with me every week in the form of a discussion about the week’s episodes. Those of you who used to join us in our Lost discussions will remember Chris as “humanebean,” which is the username under which he would comment. But this week he steps up to help me out with the post itself. We’ll do it in a back and forth fashion, much like the way I did the Game of Thrones post with Christopher Lockett earlier this year.

I first met Chris back when he was posting as humanebean, and we often chatted off the list. We'd talk about Lost and other series, old and new, and he was a Mac guy who was constantly telling me to dump the PC and go with Apple. So when I finally did so earlier this year, it was met with a Hallelujah chorus from Chris and he's been awesome at always being there whenever I have a question. Of course, in between technical questions and answers we continue to chat about TV (and we even met up in both Toronto and his hometown of Boston this past summer to chat in person) and so I thought it would be great fun to tackle a new series with him! If you'd like to see what Chris does when he's not giving me tech support or talking about TV, go here to see his latest project, which has been getting amazing reviews, for good reason!

So let’s start!

Well, let’s get the obvious out of the way right off the top: how much people are going to compare this show to Lost:
• It’s produced by J.J. Abrams.
• It premiered on September 22.
• It stars Michael Emerson as an enigmatic individual who seems to know a LOT about things, wears round glasses, seems to keep files of information on the people he deals with, has a physical disability (it’s a limp rather than cancer this time), is obsessed with numbers (“The numbers never stop coming!”), and who is the sort of guy everyone just wants to beat up.
• Reese looks a lot like Jack Shephard, and I couldn’t help but smile when he refused to listen to Ben Finch and instead walks away from him, calls him a liar... and then tries to beat him up.

Was anyone else wondering if the names had extra meaning, or were searching for repeating numbers?

That said, I don’t see any of this as a drawback. I love the little elements that gave this show weight, and made it a true successor to the other J.J. Abrams shows that preceded it. I really, really enjoyed this pilot episode, and I typically don’t like pilots at all. I don’t care about the characters enough, there’s usually too much exposition, etc. But this took a basic premise and then built it up through the first episode. What did you think, Chris?

I have to say that I was apprehensive going in. The early buzz on the show was rather mixed (there seem to be a lot of Caviezel-bashers out there) and as much as I was looking forward to seeing Michael Emerson again, a part of me was worried that I might find his character (and the show) rather ordinary. I can happily say that I enjoyed the pilot episode, thought that Ben –er, Mr. Finch was a compelling character and that the groundwork was laid for an interesting series.

There’s a fine balance to be sought (certainly on network TV) between offering the familiar and comfortable and the slightly edgy and off-kilter. The concept for Person of Interest name-checks a plethora of paranoid someone-is-watching movies of the last decade or so: from Enemy of the State to Deja Vu to Eagle Eye. And yet writer Jonathan Nolan (brother of director Christopher) brings subtle touches to the familiar theme that range from the Samurai film Caviezel is watching in his seedy, flop-house hotel room to the knowing way that Caviezel coaxes the good out of fallen cop Kevin Chapman and sets him up to be his “man on the inside” in the future. I was reminded of a much older character, first introduced in pulp magazines before appearing on radio and in movie serials of the 30’s and 40’s – Lamont Cranston as The Shadow, a flawed but heroic figure who set out to protect the vulnerable from the powerful and corrupt.

Wow – that was an awful lot of pop-culture references to cram into my first thoughts on the show! I’ll pause for breath here and let Nikki jump back in. Back to you, Nik!

I will admit I’ve heard a lot of crazy things about Caviezel – that he’d made comments he was born to play Christ, and that he’s really intense, but then again, Matthew Fox isn’t exactly laidback. ;) But I thought he was pretty fantastic, and as you pointed out, I think the two leads are the main reason why the show really works. Caviezel pulled me in right from the beginning, and I think I’d watch Emerson in just about anything. They work very well together, with a familiar yet interesting chemistry.

The production values were impressive as well, from the camera work and the great long shots (like when Reese strides out into the street with the gun and just stands there waiting for the car to get closer) to the gritty, loud music that played throughout the episode. The only misstep, in my opinion, was the use of Massive Attack’s “Angel” in the scene where Reese and the cop are facing off, holding guns to their prisoners’ heads. That song is almost 15 years old, and was overused in television, movies, and movie trailers at the time (the best use of it was in one of the early seasons of the original Nikita TV show with Peta Wilson, where at the climax of the song a boat blew up), so it seemed a little dated to be using it again.

But that’s a very small nitpick about an otherwise well-crafted visual sense of the series.

What did you think of the actual premise, with a machine that can watch and pinpoint people in a Minority Report kind of way?

I think that the premise of the show played better in the execution than it did in the explanation. The use of intercut surveillance camera views from various angles opened up the plot and set it well in a wider context. The way in which graphics tracked over the views to indicate the individual subject of the surveillance – or showed how many people could be monitored at the same time – piqued my curiosity about who was monitoring the footage and how it was accessed. This sold the premise, in my opinion, and made me eager to learn more.

The explanation for the all-pervasive Watching Machine didn’t quite capture my imagination. While I felt that Michael Emerson did the best he could with the dialogue given in these scenes, I didn’t find the backstory for the creation of the machine as compelling. When he and Caviezel where shown strolling through the oft-used tunnels of Central Park as he described the twin tracks of the machine (“relevant” and “irrelevant”), I half expected to hear Ben say “You got me monologuing!” as they emerged into the light. Still, the fact that Ben has access to a secret “back door” for the Matrix –er, Machine, does provide a Point of Interest for future storylines. Is the Government aware that someone else has access to the database? Will Caviezel need to come to Ben’s defense if some mysterious personage comes sniffing around? Inquiring minds want to know.

I agree with you about the production values, Nikki. I generally liked the look and feel of the show and really enjoyed some of the camera angles and lighting effects. Did you know that the director of this episode, David Semel, is a veteran of many pilots and TV series, including episodes of Buffy and Angel?

Oh yes, I remember his name from my episode guides. ;) He was a big WB guy at one time, handling Buffy, Angel, Dawson’s Creek, Roswell, and others all at once. I think he also did a couple of Heroes episodes early on. So he was a good guy to do this pilot.

Agreed about the long exposition. They kind of lost me there a bit, and it’s the sort of thing that annoys me in pilots, but as you say, it wasn’t too annoying this time around. Emerson handled the monologue well, but it was still rather convoluted. When the camera would show us the p.o.v. of one of those CCTVs and we’d see it zoning in on Finch and Reese every time they walked by, that was far more disturbing and creepy, and you assumed every word they were saying was being listened to somewhere.

J.J. Abrams has incorporated real-world events into his shows before, with Alias, Fringe and Lost reflecting the zeitgeist of a post-9/11 world, but I found in Person of Interest he was using that even more, and showing the long-term repercussions of the terrorist act. I thought it was handled very well without being exploitative of that day.

I also really liked the guest stars – the lawyer was on Dirty Sexy Money and Justified and I was excited that William Sadler would be in it (he had been the sheriff dad in Roswell) but he just had a bit role as the older man with the guns in the backroom asking the kids who the hell that crazy guy was.

If I had to list off what I didn’t like, I thought some of it was a little too pat. The dialogue was flat for me in many of the scenes (which surprised me a lot considering Nolan is helming it) and there were certain scenes where they got away with stuff that went unexplained. How did Reese get away from the guys surrounding him when he tossed his phone into the guy’s backpack? Are we just to assume he made mincemeat of them like he always does? Why wasn’t he back in jail the way he’d been after the subway incident? How was Finch on the roof of a building, spying on the lawyer, and the moment he noticed she was leaving he somehow made it all the way down to the street in no time and was in a car and following her? How did he manage to sneak into a closed courtroom and switch the recording so it would be the woman’s voice instead of what she’d been expecting? And why would they force Emerson to walk with a limp knowing he’ll have to do it for years if the show takes off? ;) (It reminded me of ER where they put Laura Innes’ character on crutches, only for her to become a lead who had to stay on those crutches for years.)

I know we’re not supposed to ask most of these questions, but I do anyway. I hope they soon rely less on perfect coincidence and instead have these things become roadblocks that the characters overcome, rather than something they gloss over so they can tie up the episodes neatly.

But as I said, I think the true strength of the show is in the two leads. Caviezel is menacing and terrifying, and Emerson is brilliant. The ending was majestic, and I’m excited about next week’s episode!

I absolutely agree with your bones of contention in the pilot and the overriding desire to see past them and want more of the good stuff. I wasn’t as high on Natalie Zea (as ADA Hanson) as you were, although I love her as Timothy Olyphant’s ex-wife and current love interest on Justified. Her scenes were less believable to me and her ‘twist’ near the end fell a bit flat.

Random thoughts:
- As Ben Linus, Michael Emerson often brought touches of menace and pathos to his portrayal. I was extremely glad to see his nuanced characterization of MISTER Finch (given the sometimes ham-fisted dialogue) that quickly established him as a new entity without straying too far from what we’ve come to know and love about his acting talents. Oh, how I loves me some Benry.
- LOST call-back #1– this time, Michael Emerson has the lists, not Jacob!
- Loved how he tells Caviezel that others have lied to him but “I never will”.
- LOST call-back #2 – Michael Emerson characters have more passports than anyone on the planet.
- Jim Caviezel sets some kind of TV record for shooting people in the leg. If this becomes a drinking game, I’m in a LOT of trouble.
- The final image, of the endless banks of servers monitoring data in some anonymous government bunker, immediately brought to mind the iconic image of the warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark. *phew Thought I was going out without another pop-culture reference for a moment there!

Thanks for inviting me to share the blogverse with you for this series, Nikki. I look forward to a long and successful run for Person of Interest. Oh my gosh … I just “kissed of death” it, didn’t I? ; ]

Hahaha! And thank you for joining me! (And I just laughed out loud at your Raiders of the Lost Ark reference because I thought the very same thing!!) Maybe at some point the computer will go all HAL on everyone. This IS J.J. Abrams, after all.

See you next week!


Fred said...

To be honest, the pilot was rather bland. Another cop/procedural show with a twist. But worse than that, I just wasn't grabbed by the dialogue, and in some cases there was just too much of that for what I expected from Nolan to be a joy-ride experience from the start. That said, I don't usually expect too much from pilots (Lost certainly spoiled us with its pilot).

I was also disappointed with the use of the backdrop of New York. This is New York, but as Chris notes we get a lot of strolling through Central Park tunnels--how about some real locales than the standard cliches of NY.

That said the basic concept of the show is intriquing, but concept doesn't make episodes. I expect the backstories to percolate along in true Abrams fashion, like in Fringe and Lost and Alias. The setup fits a network one show stand alone, and each week we can expect the computer to spit out a new number for our intrepid sleuths. This isn't a bad thing, provided character development and chemistry occurs. Right now I just don't feel there is any chemistry between Finch and Reese, but it's early days.

One thing, at the show's end, the shot focusing on the camera with a red light, I thought, "Is that Hal?" Is there a black monolith circling Jupiter? Anyway, camera surveillance everywhere conjours up images of Big Brother and raises the whole issue of whether this show will turn into a americanized version of 1984? Will the machine ever spit out the wrong information? I'll stay tuned for now.

yourblindspot said...

Humanebean, welcome to the top side of the comments section. Nice work, man.

After reading a lot of the same mixed reviews, I went into the pilot with tempered expectations, but I ended up enjoying it more than I'd anticipated. That being said, I still thought it was thin on most everything save Action Movie Ass-Kickery, which it served up in spades. There's certainly potential there, but the writing will have to improve before I'll be completely sold on it.

I have to wonder if the slightness of the script has anything to do with the fact that Jonathan Nolan usually writes with a partner (all of his work with director-brother Christopher "Dark Knight" Nolan was co-written by the two; in fact, this is the only solo writing credit I could find for him). He co-wrote next week's ep with Greg Plageman, whose work over the past ten years has been almost exclusively for procedurals like 'Cold Case' and 'NYPD Blue.' If I have one fear regarding this one, it's the idea that we're going to end up with a whole lot of ephemeral mythology questions wrapped around a fairly standard crime-of-the-week presentation.

yourblindspot said...

(And yes, I actually wanted to write "Christopher 'Dancing on the Ceiling' Nolan" but then feared only we old folks would have any idea how hilarious I am. Pop Culture Reference Fail. Sorry, Chris.)

Gillian Whitfield said...

I really enjoyed Person of Interest. I hope it lasts longer than one season.

I think it would be the icing on the cake if Terry O'Quinn was Mr. Finch's boss or somehow connected to Finch.

This is the second crime show that I watch, the other being Castle. It's too early to say which one had the better pilot episode.

Does it have the potential to be the next Lost? Again, it's too early to say, but I'm thinking that it will be used in the same sentence as Lost.

Gillian Whitfield said...

Speaking of TV characters with limps, on House, Hugh Laurie ( ♥ ) has had to walk with a limp for going on eight seasons. I don't know how he managed not to get a limp HIMSELF.

Also, I wouldn't be able to sleep for weeks if I knew that I was being watched.

Page48 said...

I'm with Fred ("to be honest, the pilot was rather bland"). As Bad Robot pilots go, it was a far cry from the standard set by "Truth Be Told" a decade earlier.

That's not to say that there isn't a series in there somewhere, but at first glance, it's missing 3 staples of a great Abrams show: sci-fi (I'm not sure the number-spewing computer counts), weekly cliffhanger, and at least one smokin' hot female cast member. Without those, what's left but a case o' the week procedural in a sea of case o' the week procedurals? They've got to at least have a decent conspiracy, no?

When "Fringe" debuted, JJ made a big deal out of breaking free of his serial roots in favour of a show that would cater to flaky viewers with questionable devotion to the show. In other words, he proudly declared that he was going to lower the bar. But, lately he has been back peddling as "Fringe" has morphed into a serial lovers dream. To hell with those casual There is no question whatsoever that "Fringe" benefited from leaving its standalone days in the rear view mirror and embracing serial (and, it took long enough) as it should have from day one.

I can't see me hanging in there for any length of time unless there is something deeper going on than preventing a weekly crime in progress. But I will tune in long enough to give POI the opportunity to wow me. It's not like my Thursday nights crackle with excitement.

Colleen/redeem147 said...

I wandered off to check my emails in the middle. Not a good sign. I wouldn't be watching without Michael, but I'll likely keep watching because of him.

I'm not much of an Abrams fan. Darleton, oh yeah. I hated his Star Trekish movie. His Mission Impossibles were okay.

Erin {pughs' news} said...

I didn't see it. But I'm totally going to give it a go, and I'm excited to read your ongoing conversation about it, Nikki and Chris!

Mike_D said...

I liked this pilot episode, it was good to see Michael Emerson back in action! When he said the line "the numbers never stop coming," I expected to hear a Michael, John or Jack at the end of the sentence. Maybe we can semi-trust this Emerson incarnation?

I didn't see the lawyer end-twist coming! Caviziel's character is an ex-Army Ranger (Airborne, judging by the patches on his dress uniform) in the Special Forces, I would imagine after 911, he was welcomed back with open arms! More Lost-style flashbacks to come!

Terry O'Quinn has been great so far in Hawaii 5-0 as another Special Forces solider, a Navy SEAL!

I look forward to more episode information from you Nikki! I miss the Lost ones!!

The Question Mark said...

Like Nikki, I'm not a huge pilot fan. Some shows that i absolutely LOVE still had pilots that bored me. I think there have only been 4 pilots in history that I thought were as exceptional as the rest of the series to follow: Game of Thrones, Heroes, LOST, and Fresh Prince.

I kinda like this premise so far, and I trust JJ & Co. completely, but I really hope it doesn't become another bland cop procedural like Fred said.

@ NIKKI & CHRIS: I didn't catch the Nolan writing credit, but now that you've brought it up, it makes a lot of sense. I don't know if anyone else felt this, but the show gave me a very Batman begins-ish feeling. About 20 minutes in, I was convinced Abrams was going to pull a fast one by gradually turning this into a superhero show, with Caviezel slowly becoming a masked vigilante of the night in the employ of Finchamin Linus. :P

I have to admit I'm not a fan of Reese. I just can't stand those James Bond-ish characters who have no personality other than the fact that theyr'e "really good at fighting & stuff". Granted, this is just episode 1; hopefully Reese will become mor ehuman and fleshed out soon.

LT McDi said...

my take was that with the amount of set up required I'm not the least bit surprised the pilot was a bit flat in spots. One can only be "so" creative explaining the ins and outs the machine and backdoor access, etc but as a viewer, I'd rather spend one show on "the mechanics" leaving the other episodes for other things

I liked how it appeared various characters were getting pulled into the orbit of the two main characters.

I liked the look of the show overall.
Caviziel's character is intriguing.
I liked Michael Emerson's character too but overt Ben Linus stuff. He belongs to the LOST world. Besides I'd hate to see the talented Emerson get totally typecast.
Loved the twist...
I've been watching the various new shows and so far this is the first one I'll check out next week

Suzanne said...

I enjoyed it as a pilot since it was fast paced and the characters seemed interesting. I ccouldn't help thinking about Ben and the way he forced Sayid to kill for him in Lost. I was big Sayid fan so it made me a bit notalgic for him, wishing he was the main character. I will definitely come back to see more.

I have always been a fan of Abrams going all the way back to Felicity -- a very different show from his others but with great characters like his others. Here is hoping that these haracters become well developed too.

AEC said...

I finally got around to watching POI from this week. It's really rare for me to like pilots, but I thought this one was pretty good. The real test of my devotion will come in November when Bones comes back and they're at conflicting time spots :)

I LOVED seeing Ben back on TV and the main guy (Reese?) really reminded me of Jack at the beginning. He hasn't really captivated me as a character yet, but I hope he'll be fleshed out a little bit more in the future.

I agree with what some other people have said re: dialogue being a bit flat. Not terrible, but I thought it could use some improvement. My big concern for the show is that it'll just turn into a procedural, where each week we have a new number/person and their situation will be neatly resolved. I don't necessarily have anything against procedurals, I just hope that this show is much more than that.

So... I guess I'm not 100% sold on this show yet, but I rarely am after watching a pilot. I'm definitely planning to watch again next week to see where things go!

Zach Z said...

Was lukewarm on the idea going into the pilot and was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. Though I am not sure if this seems like a show that needs to be blogged and read about weekly, just another procedural with a soft scifi twist.

Also the character of Reese reminds alot of the character Oliver Stone from David Baldacci's 'Camel Club' series. Also a former CIA super kill agent who everyone believed dead and was a bum at the beginning of the series....

Nikki Faith said...

Hmmm, my original comment didn't take. Strange internet problems... Just wanted to say I'm glad you're blogging on this new series, Nikki! I really enjoyed the pilot and think it shows great promise. Caviziel did great. And, like you, I will follow Emerson anywhere. :)
~The "other" Nikki

Teebore said...

I too came into this with tempered expectations, and ended up enjoying it enough.

Definitely more "police procedural" than "genre-crosser with dense mythology" at this point, but that might bode well for its long term future and ultimate resolution (fool me once...).

Chris mentions it here and I've heard it remarked elsewhere as well, but thus far, I'm most intrigued by the idea of this as a superhero show without the costumes, or at least a modern take on pulp heroes like The Shadow. Even if the mythology/backstory fails to push this outside the realm of the standard procedural, viewing it that way is probably enough to keep my interest (along with Michael Emerson, of course).

I had heard a lot about Caviezel sleepwaking through the episode, but I thought he was fine. I didn't love him, but for the first episode, he was serviceable.

@Chris: knowing way that Caviezel coaxes the good out of fallen cop Kevin Chapman

That was probably my favorite part of the episode, and one of the few unexpected turns of the plot. I really like that idea, and hope both that the cop returns and that we see Reese continue to build a network in that manner.