Saturday, February 08, 2014

Person of Interest: Realistic Thriller Science Fiction TV

SPOILER LEVEL: LOW. Not too many specifics mentioned that don't arise within the first couple episodes of the show, but there are a few. For later things, specific names not used but relationships alluded to. If you're a Person of Interest virgin and don't want to be primed how to watch the show from any out-of-show sources, stay away until you've reached half way through the third season.

Chatter on the Internet has highlighted how Person of Interest uses realistic computer code. The Nerdist and others have point out the prescience of Person of Interest on how surveillance has become pervasive as it has. Interesting as these topics get, this entry doesn't touch on that topic. Just wanted to make that clear in case readers came here to read about it.

Instead, the narrative structure and character interactions lends a lot to the show's realism. The show still uses refrigerator logic and other believability-bending techniques to move narrative forward, but interactions between characters and organizations feels true. Much of this hypothesis comes from some marathon second viewing with Michi, catching things I hadn't seen the first time.

Not to say that I didn't have an inkling of this structure first time through. Person of Interest gets messy with its broadcast-TV level ultraviolence within the first couple minutes. John Reese beats the living crap out of a couple street hoods that underestimate his skills as a living weapon. Viscerality overwhelms senses, but the techniques and human factor break through, too.

Person of Interest extrapolates this messiness outward as Reese and Harold Finch's influence and footprint on New York City and world stage grows larger. The dynamic duo develop friends and foes that can change allegiances at the drop of a hat. Sometimes we wonder if Reese and Finch should become enemies themselves. Person of Interest has created a paranoid setting where everyone should look twice at who they count as innocent or guilty. This status changes more than a few times as Reese and Finch have tried to evaluate a 'number.'

The way narrative structure and human/organizational relations interweave strikes fascinating realism. Most television and movies follow a pretty conventional narrative structure that has become familiar and comfortable, almost right and correct on some level. Some genre shows, like LOST, have broken away from tradition. Even then, though, LOST doesn't maintain such a dynamic messiness. Every season had something of its own set of stories that reached conclusion by the end.

Person of Interest has its plot arcs. Some of them reach a climax or catharsis at midseason or end of season. First season ends on a cliffhanger in the middle of an arc. Second season resolved an arc, but the arc itself had only lasted a couple episodes. It added a lot to the show and characterization to a character. Watching it provided intensity. The show didn't change much because of the conclusion, though. For all intents and purposes, the season three opener returned to its tried-and-true procedural format with some titillation of a developing larger story.

These points often don't make solid conclusions. They act more as catharsis, characterization and raising further questions. Many conclusions, more often than not, come as surprise or low-key revelations. Many characters that have become apparent major antagonistics or valuable assets can end up dead with little notice, in the middle of a season, at the end of a season, anytime. In other shows, such built up characters either have wrought out or quick, cheap death. Person of Interest feels real. The death feels like real injustice and a bad break, not bad writing.

Just as fascinating, the show doesn't hesitate to mourn a death. Many other shows would have a death occur, shed a couple tears then move forward with the plot. Person of Interest knows to walk the line between mourning, getting back on track and the difficulty of doing so. Not everyone can do it so easy. Sometimes mourning gets depressing and messy, but that's real.

In two and a half seasons, Reese, Finch and their small group of friends have made enemies of two social institutions (New York police & Federal Intelligence Agencies), a governmental black ops organization, multiple organized crime families (including a criminal mastermind that would probably have taken over the city if it weren't for Reese and Finch), an ugly criminal organization of corrupt cops and NYC governmental officials, a vigilante group that feels the government and big data business has too much power in the form of surveillance and some shadow organization that we know practically nothing about but fear only after a couple episodes interspersed throughout.

The team converted a couple cops to their side. Short-term alliances have occurred with some enemies to take on a larger enemy. Protagonists have made us believe that a couple antagonists have faced defeat and death. . .sometimes at great cost. Such victories come few and far between, though, often with setbacks, losses and frustration before the win.

Unlike other shows, though, the war with major enemies doesn't remain constant, doesn't last for just one season and doesn't always remain a constant threat to always keep eye open to remain defensive. Probably good idea to do so, but easy enough to become a little complacent as they recede into the background.

I can't blame the characters for letting their guard down against particular antagonists every once in awhile. The most striking narrative tool: a lot of it happens at once. A collage of plot arcs and characters come to the fore or recede into the background. They do so depending on the agenda of characters/organizations or with supposed randomness. With multiple dangerous antagonists coming at the protagonists at varied levels of intensity and timing, how can they keep them all in mind all the time? Just look at the difficulty us regular, everyday people have with time management, remembering all the tasks we have to address and our everyday politicking following these types of patterns?

Antagonists coming in and out of play the way they do even becomes a compelling part of the show. How much do the varied interactions occur at random and how much as manipulative design? I point this question as an in-story question, not at the writers.

Still, with the level of execution at play, how much have have the writers and directors designed the plot and how much has occurred through spontaneous creation? I don't really read or listen to many commentaries out there. I may have to check out Person of Interest commentaries and interviews with writers/directors to get further insight.

Other shows oftimes use one-up episodes or enemies as distraction or filler. Person of Interest presented itself at first as procedural. The show can use the procedural and one-time enemies as filler and distraction, too. Even as a back from the heavy plot arcs.

As one of the most recent episodes makes clear, though, the common everyday person IS relevant. Forget the government-developed parameters that petty crimes, non-international-intelligence and non-terrorist threats are irrelevant.

The minor one-time enemy and everyday person remains the blood and guts of Person of Interest. Big enemies distract us and the team from the relevant everyday but all of it sucks the viewer in. The non-linear vacillation between short attention spans and hyper focus of plots and characters/organizations coming in and out of life at their own pace and sometimes all at once feels almost too real.

Few other shows have accomplished this level of realism and attraction when it comes to the human factor and experience. These factors have contributed a lot to Person of Interest becoming one of my favorite shows on television presently. I look forward to more of it, even as I fear for our protagonists that we've let into our living rooms. Hopefully Person of Interest can also become a good influence on other TV shows and TV writers.


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