Once upon a time in 2011 I was in the mood to follow a TV show on CBS, of all channels — Person of Interest, the latest project from Jonathan Nolan, best known for writing or co-writing many of his brother Christopher’s films. The first seven episodes were one part above-average hard-boiled CBS procedural, one part very-near-future SF drama. Then the show began skipping weeks, returned without notice, and skipped more weeks. When I realized new episodes were airing, catching up was impossible because some miserly executive forbade it from being available On Demand, on CBS.com, or anywhere else for streaming after the fact. I gave up on following along as it aired, but vowed I’d catch up one day when the time was right.
At the end of 2013 our household joined the Netflix achievers. I added PoI to my queue as soon as I saw it was available, and looked forward to catching up at long last.
Then, because I’m old and forgetful and surround myself with far too many hobbies and to-do lists and internet distractions, seven years blinked by.
On August 20, 2020, I got the heads-up that PoI would be leaving Netflix September 22nd. Considering the show is a Warner Bros. production, I presume its eventual destination is their mega-corporation’s new HBO Max service. Unless I wanted to spend money either on HBO Max or on PoI DVD sets, I now had a deadline — thirty-two days to cram in all 103 episodes across five seasons.
Fun personal trivia: I respond well to deadlines. When a project is suited to me, I will observe a fixed deadline as fanatically as possible. I will stare down the flashing OR ELSE sign looming at the forefront of my brain. Give me an unlimited amount of time to complete a task, and I promise I will take infinite months to complete it. Give me a deadline with an ultimatum attached, and I’ll cross the finish line with moments to spare or harm myself trying. Or just shame myself, whichever feels less worrisome to my loved ones.
Oh, the stories I could tell about deadlines that hurt to meet. The time I wrote a college paper about satire in rock music that took me until 7 a.m. the following morning and taught me I should never use Vivarin again. Or the time I attended an advance screening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; stayed up until 3 a.m. on a weeknight to write an overlong, overwrought review for a short-lived news site; posted it a day ahead of release; then howled and growled as the website crashed hard and stayed crashed the entire weekend. (They poured salt in the wound months later when they deleted the entire site without giving me the chance to save anything I’d written. Many thousands of words vaporized. Still bitter.) Or the time I sped through fifty miles of winding, veering, curving, sharply inclined roads of the Hudson Highlands at a breakneck pace despite road construction and impossibly arrived for a scheduled group tour mere minutes before non-refundable takeoff. So yes, I can do deadlines.
With the blessing of my wife Anne, I put off nearly all my other hobbies (look, I couldn’t just totally abandon the good people of Skyrim who needed me), set aside blog ideas that might require too many paragraphs, gave up compulsive Twitter doomscrolling for a few weeks, and let our poor lawn fend for itself while I sped through all the PoI episodes ever. It helped that the Age of Coronavirus eliminated many distractions, temptations, and extracurricular activities for me. It also helped that Anne and I had scheduled the first week of September as a vacation week, Originally it was our rain check week for our 2020 vacation, with hopes that by then The Virus would be cured and I’d be allowed to cross state lines again. Because America 2020 has become a never-ending Keystone Kops film, I had plenty of time to knock out the first few dozen episodes before I had to start balancing my PoI binge with my day job.
I immediately began the evening of August 20th with rewatching the first four episodes. Over 32 days I would need to average at least 3-1/3 episodes per day to meet the goal. That’s far more TV than I watch in a normal week, which is why some DVD sets have stood on our shelves unwatched for some 10-15 years now. But by Day 8 I was well ahead of that pace. Beyond that point the timeline is a blur until September 19th, when I watched the final two episodes as a Saturday morning special event while Anne ran around and did all the adult errands. She returned ten minutes before The End. And thus it was finished — all 4,429 minutes of it.
Quick primer for those who missed it: Person of Interest stars Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) and Michael Emerson (Lost) as a brains-and-brawn duo seeking to save lives and redeem the sins of their respective dark pasts. Caviezel is John Reese, an ex-CIA special-ops assassin presumed dead and bereft of meaning or purpose. Emerson calls himself Harold Finch, a tech whiz who helped invent an artificial intelligence that would help the post-9/11 American government spy on anyone anywhere anytime in search of possible terrorists, with an emphasis on the domestic kind and a de-emphasis on any crimes outside the terrorism spectrum. When his emotionless choices and the consequential sins of his superiors begin to rack up body counts, Mr. Finch enacts a plan that would let his A.I. — never known as anything but simply The Machine — secretly relay information to him on “irrelevant” non-terrorism fatalities about to occur, based on its myriad super awesome algorithms and its ubiquitous surveillance sources. Each week The Machine provides Finch with a coded Social Security number; he in turn sends Mr. Reese into the field to assess whether the number belonged to an imminent killer or victim, then hopefully save the day.
Along the way, Reese and Finch recruit help for their thankless crusade. Enter Taraji P. Henson from the Karate Kid remake as NYC homicide detective Joss Carter, whose job leads her to chasing Our Heroes until she gets wise, joins them, and sticks around through the middle of season 3, when she and the producers mutually planned her exit. (After taking time off from screens to recharge with a theater gig, then she signed up for Empire and became a superstar.) Kevin Chapman (FX’s Rescue Me) was Lionel Fusco, another detective but proudly corrupt, blackmailed into pawn status by Our Heroes until he sees the error of his ways, renounces his cliches, helps destroy the cops’ conspiracy from within, and claws his way back to redemption and respectability.
Most of the show’s “good” characters had to cross back over from the Dark Side like that. When Amy Acker (TV’s Angel) first appears at the end of season 1 as a hacker named Root, she’s a psychopathic nihilist who kidnaps Finch and threatens his life several times in a row. Later The Machine recruits her for select functions that only her unique skill sets can serve, initiating a long-term process — including a stint of strict incarceration, of Finch’s design — that eventually teaches her humanity is worth saving and loving, in effect becoming The Machine’s first and only quasi-spiritual apostle. In the season-2 episode “Relevance” (the only one directed by Nolan, and one of nine episodes bearing an official writing credit for him) we meet Sarah Shahi (USA’s Fairly Legal) as Sameen Shaw, an ISA spec-ops killer like Reese, whose job is taking down the domestic-terrorist numbers generated by the legit side of The Machine. Her job naturally turns topsy-turvy due to government evil and she’s likewise on board through the end (except the second half of season 4 when she was on maternity leave, but her absence painfully reverberates).
Though the writers and producers were beholden to the formulaic demands of a standard CBS case-of-the-week cop show, numerous organizations represent recurring nemeses under the working theory that far too often, humans working in tandem are susceptible to becoming evil conspiracies. Among the offenders are the CIA; the Department of Defense team that Shaw leaves; H.R., the sprawling corrupt faction within the NYC police; the Russian mob; the American mob under shadowy figure Carl Elias; anti-surveillance vigilantes called simply Vigilance, led by future Hamilton costar Leslie Odom, Jr.; the Brotherhood, another rival gang led by Winston Duke (Black Panther) and Jamie Hector (Marlo Stanfield from The Wire); and, overshadowing them all, Decima Technologies. Ruling the last three seasons, Decima follows the whims of a former MI-6 named operative John Greer (a deeply sinister John Nolan, uncle of Jonathan and Christoper) who in his golden years wants to save the world by unleashing an all-new, even more powerful A.I. termed Samaritan (the brainchild of two-time guest star Saul Rubinek) that will not only eliminate terrorism but basically rule the world because humans can no longer be trusted to do it for themselves. There are a lot of loyalties requiring a few scorecards to track.
Ratings for season 1 were great; season 2’s were even higher. Nielsen families began to drift after that, more so in season 4 when Samaritan came to the forefront and turned the show’s premise on its head. Suddenly there were two A.I.’s at war with humanity and free will caught in the middle. I suspect folks who preferred the cop-show basics to the “mythology” episodes were probably bummed out. It also didn’t help that with every single ostensible murder mystery presented in the last two seasons, any viewer could feel like a genius by waiting three minutes, yelling “SAMARITAN DID IT!”, then waiting patiently till the characters take the long way ’round to that same conclusion. CBS became upset that their deal with Warner Bros. barely broke even for that season, then shelved it for a full year till burning off season 5 as a twice-weekly summer series. Sensing that any further renewal was unlikely, Nolan and showrunners Greg Plageman and Denise Thé saw the writing on the wall and planned season 5 as a madcap, adrenalized swan song full of major turns, big character deaths, and satisfying closure to the Samaritan saga and to the Reese/Finch partnership once and for all. They left a wedge in the door for a sixth season in case of miraculous renewal, and even planted seeds for a spin-off or two in case CBS was interested in Person of Interest: New Orleans or Person of Interest: SVU. Alas, the end was indeed The End.
In a sense that worked out for me because if I’d had to binge more than 103 episodes, I would’ve had to sideline even more activities such as sleep, family, and maybe even Chopped, among the extremely few shows to air new episodes every single week through the pandemic. For my sake, five seasons of PoI worked out just right.
(Granted, a few characters could’ve used one last “Whatever Happened to…?” moment. Claire Mahoney the young Decima recruit? Michael Stahl-David from Cloverfield as Finch’s partner’s inquisitive son? Julian Sands’ differently evil ex-MI-6 agent? Adria Arjona’s young Detective Silva? Biggest of all, Reese’s ex-partner Kara Stanton, supposedly blown up but with no confirmed body? All were left behind. Extra moments would’ve been keen, if only the network had permitted more time.)
I hadn’t originally planned to dedicate an entire entry to my PoI marathon because writing about non-current digital media tends to crater my site traffic, especially at this length. In 2020 I’ve stopped caring about the numbers and am concentrating on writing for the joy of writing regardless of my online status as an irrelevant number. I’d been planning to burn off random thoughts about the show as a tweetstorm, probably heavy on PoT GIFs if they’re out there. Sadly, because Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not die on the set of Person of Interest, there’s absolutely no use for dumping all this on Twitter just now. And I was hoping to post about my 30-day 103-episode overdose before Netflix erases it from their hard drives on September 22nd. Technically this means I’m highly recommending a show you won’t be able to watch for a while if you haven’t already.
After sitting through so much of it in a row, you begin to catch the little recurring things, both cool and annoying. To wit:
- How the show about A.I. complications went a full 103 episodes without making a single Skynet joke
- When Reese starts trying on the occasional CSI: Miami one-liners and awkwardly baring his teeth in later seasons as if a CBS suit told him, “You should smile more”
- The ludicrous number of times someone drives through just the right intersection at the exact right time to T-bone an opponent’s car precisely when their head is turned
- That thing in the modern world when heavy-duty Googling through secret networks replaces old-fashioned detective work (props to Fusco for eventually getting permission to do some)
- Reese’s superpower to reach from any Point A to any Point B in Manhattan in five minutes flat
- How much I love that their best crime boss is Veronica Mars’ dad, which explains a lot
- Giggling to myself that Acker the Hacker had way more personalities here than just Fred and Illyria
- Giggling out loud whenever Detective Carter works a case alongside Michael McGlone, a.k.a. Mister GEICO
- Drinking game: take a shot whenever you recognize actors from either House of Cards or The Wire; high-fives for everyone in the living room when they’ve been on both shows — e.g., Reg E. Cathey, John Doman, and Boris McGiver
- The existential angst every time someone asks “who are you?” and the answer is guaranteed never to be a real name
- The number of times the answer is “a concerned third party”, which I’m thinking about putting on business cards or maybe in my Twitter bio if I can decide which other words to sacrifice for it
- Did I mention THE Winston Duke from THE Black Panther was on the show? In several season-4 episodes?
- In 103 episodes only once does someone ask Reese “How do you do that thing with your voice?” because most of the time he sounds as if he’s narrating a Wolverine video game
- Every time Reese or Finch asks “Are you listening?” and the other buddy says “Always” and you’re meant to trust like “yep, perfectly normal bro-love and not extra creepy”
- That time they did an episode about a young NSA whistleblower convinced the American government was going into illegal surveillance overkill, and sixteen months later Edward Snowden was a thing for real (fittingly, in its final acts the show acknowledged him with a couple of Easter eggs)
…that all would’ve been much more concise as a tweetstorm. And way more GIF-tastic. Or they could’ve been reworked into jokes for a PoI episode of Honest Trailers, but I doubt those guys scour the internet for freelance jokes about a show no one’s demanding to see Trailer’d.
So yeah, 103 episodes mashed together in too short a time. I’m not allowed to sustain that TV-watching pace because Anne also likes TV and deserves to have some. Before I shut the door on that part of my brain, here’s my obligatory 10 Best Episodes of Person of Interest list, in chronological order because I don’t feel like ranking them:
- “Cura Te Ipsum” — The fourth episode, the one that convinced me the show was Something Very Different. Reese has to convince Linda Cardellini from the live-action Scooby-Doo movies that revenge-killing isn’t for everyone and comes with a steep price, with a tantalizing ambiguous ending that viewers could argue about for a while afterward.
- “Witness” — Episode seven brings in Enrico Colantoni, their best recurring player bar none, the best among the early renditions of Innocent Character Isn’t Who They Say They Are. Too many false faces in a row made concealed identities next to impossible in dozens of subsequent episodes, so props to the former Just Shoot Me costar for getting there first and doing it with the least suspicion and the fewest hackneyed lines after the reveal. Also, anything with Enver Gjokaj in it wins, even when underused.
- “Relevance” — From cowriter/director Nolan, Shaw’s intro is a high-caliber action film in its own right, where Finch and Reese play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern until the time is right.
- “God Mode” — In the season-2 finale, The Machine decides it’s time to expand its user base, Root sets up to acquire her defining superpowers, and Carter goes farther afield of law-‘n’-order when things get sticky with H.R. So, excitement abounds!
- “The Crossing” — The major character death at the end is absolutely devastating, as is the escalation of violence by H.R. as their viciousness reaches a desperation point, but it’s the finest and darkest hour for Fusco when special guest Lee Tergesen (Oz) gets in his way and the bad guys make the mistake of threatening his son.
- “The Devil’s Share” — The final showdown with H.R., personified by the nefarious duo of Clarke Peters (The Wire) and Robocop 3 star Robert John Burke. Reese wants revenge, but he’s not the only one, or the final arbiter. The ongoing arguments over whether bad guys should be brought in dead or alive felt more real here than elsewhere, albeit settled at the end in a sort-of out-of-court manner that came off as a welcome surprise rather than a left-field cop-out.
- “If-Then-Else” — Not exactly a Rashomon riff, we view three alternate timelines through the lens of The Machine, which has four seconds to review 833,333 different possible outcomes to an impossible crossfire situation and choose the least worst way forward. With more special effects and more funny moments than usual, all that is shoved aside in the unexpectedly wrenching final moment.
- “QSO” — 30 Rock‘s Scott Adsit runs a conspiracy-theory talk-radio show that gets uncomfortable when one of his listeners uncovers a Samaritan ploy and suffers the consequences. While Root multitasks to transmit a sneaky message of hope to a still-captive Shaw, The Machine continues working on its moral code in the surprise ending with a hard question: we can save people’s lives to a certain extent, but at what point do they once again become responsible for their own choices? Are we liable to continue saving them in perpetuity, or do we grant them free will even if it means they could choose poorly and get themselves killed anyway?
- “The Day the World Went Away” — Michael Emerson delivers his greatest, spookiest speech of the series when the show incurs another horrible tragedy, the forces of Samaritan finally push him too far, and there’s a virtual mic-drop when everyone realizes stuff is about to get real. Bonus points for actually using a few seconds of the eponymous Nine Inch Nails song.
- “return 0” — The End. The final boss battle against what’s left of Samaritan. The bit with the cruise missile feels contrived and clearly lacked the funds to stage a fully onscreen payoff, but every main character, alive or not, receives a fitting final act and the show delivers its humanist Moral of the Story for a world where so many search high and low for the Meaning and Purpose of Life: “Everyone dies alone. But if you meant something to someone, if you helped someone or loved someone…if even a single person remembers you, then maybe you never really die. And maybe… this isn’t the end at all.”
So this is me remembering Person of Interest, with or without Netflix.