The CBS show Person of Interest is full of strong, unorthodox characters and strong plotting, as well as an examination of the ramifications of its premise.
While CBS has traditionally found itself associated with laugh track sitcoms such as Two and a Half Men and 2 Broke Girls, in recent years it has also been recognised for its hourlong fare, with shows such as The Good Wife and Elementary often drawing critical attention. However, the channel’s changing reputation has grown on the backs of these two shows, despite the presence of a third series that deserves just as much acclaim. Person of Interest is a show that finds itself under-appreciated in critical circles despite being a high quality action thriller that has strong plotting, three-dimensional characters, and a nuanced way of looking at the ramifications of a high-security world.
One of the key strengths of the show are its women. The female characters on the show are, by and large, well-rounded, three dimensional characters with independent motivations, and who are equally likely to be a hero or a villain. In fact, two key recurring characters in the show have been women. As a behind-the-scenes political fixer, Zoe Morgan has been a valuable ally to Finch and Reese on numerous occasions, helping them out of tight spots along with being a romantic interest for the latter. On the flip side of the coin is Kara Stanton, Reese’s former professional partner and a trained assassin who has been one of the most formidable foes the duo have faced. Through her run on the show, Stanton has been motivated by a cold professionalism that first masked a sociopathic glee at being able to kill, before being supplanted by a sense of betrayal and anger. Stanton, however, has always been her own character, and her capabilities have never been downplayed, in what could appear unique on another show, but is par for the course for Person of Interest.
None of this, however, touches on the core trio of women that make up a fundamental aspect of the show. Joss Carter, Sameen Shaw, and Samantha Groves, better known as Root, have all been key aspects of the unfolding story. As a member of the main cast for much of the show’s run, Carter has acted as the moral guide for the characters, someone who truly believes the principles of truth and justice. The effectiveness of the character, however, came from the fact that Carter never saw herself as above the rest, and her positioning as the moral centre came from what she did, not what she said. The show also managed to avoid putting Carter as morally superior in every circumstance, as she was also fallible in certain situations. Most importantly, however, the show didn’t leave Carter as a two-dimensional figure, showing her personal life, giving her romantic entanglements, and revealing professional consequences to what she did that affected the direction of the story. Few women have character arcs as complex as Carter got on the show, and even fewer women of color are drawn so fully.
Carter has not been the only woman of colour amongst the core characters. She did, however, share very few personality traits with Shaw, the recent addition to the team who has been fleshed out equally well. As a ruthless assassin, Shaw and the show’s writers have not been hesitant to show and speak about how her emotions are dialed way down. But rather than portray this as a negative trait, the writers have made this just another facet of the character. This has not meant that the show has gone the easy route of having Carter and Shaw be needlessly antagonistic towards each other. Quite the opposite; despite limited interaction between the two, the fact that both saw common ground in each other and had a professional and personal respect for the other has shone through.
Then there’s one of the most fascinating and unique characters on television right now in Root. Root initially entered the show as a clear antagonist, before her true motives were revealed, making her position amongst the characters significantly more complicated. A further variable was tossed in when the Machine at the centre of the series reached out to her. Referred to on the show as the Machine’s “analog interface”, Root’s continuing relationship to the Machine, and the position that puts her in relative to every other character, has grown to be one of the most unpredictable and exciting aspects of the show. Root is a signal of incoming chaos in a way very few characters are capable of being, and it’s a testament to the show’s writing that a character of this nature continues to remain an enigma in an organic fashion, her continued mystery and unpredictability adding to the show rather than distracting from it. Working with Root has also allowed the show’s writers to draw out the Machine as its own character, capable of making decisions that affect storylines, and use its control of technology to its advantage.
The men on the show hardly get shortchanged when it comes to characterisation. The attention to detail stretches across all characters, from the central duo of Reese and Finch, to numerous recurring characters and even single episode appearances. On a lesser show, Reese and Finch would have been left as the cold-hearted assassin and the nerdy tech support, respectively. Person of Interest, however, has drawn out both characters, diving into their individual histories and putting each one in different perilous situations, their reactions saying a lot about the type of people they are, and helping the audience understand them by extension. As the characters have grown, the relationship between Reese and Finch has similarly deepened. This effectively adds a level of emotional resonance to their non-functional interactions, particularly when one or both are under duress.
But they are not the only compelling men on the show, as another member of the show’s arsenal of offbeat characters has been Detective Lionel Fusco. Seemingly a throwaway character from the pilot, Fusco started off as a dirty cop who ended up on the wrong side of Reese. As the series progressed, however, Fusco grew more complex, with his personal life and relationships with other police officers coming into sharper focus. Most intriguingly, however, while Fusco was initially blackmailed by Reese to do good things, he began to see them as a potential path of redemption for his nefarious activities, and began going about them willingly. With a combination of guidance from Reese, Finch, and Carter, Fusco’s turn from evildoer to honest detective has been one of the show’s more powerful character arcs. Furthermore, the show has been able to draw attention to the physical differences between Reese and Fusco without ever belittling the latter or making him the butt of jokes. The respect afforded to Fusco in this regard, as well as in regards to the level of development he has undergone over the course of the show, proves how adept Person of Interest is in churning out quality material for its characters.
The show’s storyline gets equal attention. Over the three seasons of the show, the threats faced by Reese, Fusco, and their allies have steadily increased in scope, as the show has gone from one-time villains to recurring antagonists whose threat increases with their power. But the scope has expanded in other ways as well. As the group’s activities, and the Machine’s functions, have become more public, the level and reach of the villains has increased proportionately. This has led to Reese and Finch battling, in addition to their everyday threats, larger problems surrounding the criminal element in New York, which has included HR, Elias, and various mob groups. Stepping out of the city does not grant them any reprieve, however, as it brings them up against bigger threats such as Control and Hersh, Decima, and Vigilance, all of whom have a stake in the Machine, and thus find themselves squaring off against Finch, Reese, Shaw, and the rest. While the progression of the magnitude of danger has been logical, Person of Interest’s ability to keep multiple villains in play without diminishing the threat of either one of them greatly contributes to the show’s quality.
The show also manages to use its villains to explore the consequences of a Machine that can gather and decipher intelligence data, such as the one portrayed on the show is capable of doing. The three antagonists that are interested in the Machine, rather than what Reese and Finch do, all have differing ideas of what they’d like to do with it, each one an understandable element. With Control, the show covers the government arm using something like The Machine and what it would look like, while with Decima, the writers similarly portray how such a device would look like in the hands of private contractors, and the lengths they would go to get it. Vigilance, on the other hand, represents a different kind of threat, with the group seeing the Machine as a fundamental invasion of their privacy and rights, and one that must be dismantled no matter the cost. The extreme lengths each group goes to in order to achieve what they set out to do makes all of them credible threats no matter what they’re fighting for, and the presence of all three villains is solely due to the Machine. This is just the biggest example of how the show’s premise affects the world it is set in, instead of simply being a flashy gimmick.
All these factors, and more, make Person of Interest a top-tier show on CBS, and one that deserves to be in the same conversation as other high-quality shows on television. Despite the excellent characterisation, a lot of the show wouldn’t work without strong performances, and the show does not disappoint in this aspect either. Michael Emerson’s work as Harold Finch proves his stint as Ben Linus on Lost was no fluke, as he crafts a character here who is nearly a complete opposite. As Detective (then Officer) Carter, Taraji P. Henson was revelatory, and the same goes for Kevin Chapman’s work as Detective Fusco. The character of Root would be a tricky role for anyone to tackle, but Amy Acker plays the character with the perfect mix of charm, fervour, and scariness, with her performance going a long way towards making Root work effectively. The excellent casting continues even with recurring characters, with performers such as Paige Turco, Enrico Colantoni, and Camryn Manheim turning up every so often. The action scenes on the show are excellently staged, with certain episodes like Season 2’s “Relevance” and Season 3’s “Mors Praematura” perfectly capable of going up against any action movie on the big screen. Together, these make Person of Interest a show that deserves more acclaim than it currently gets, and it’s one that everyone should be watching.
– Deepayan Sengupta