Tuned In

TV Tonight: Person of Interest

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Particularly when you have only a pilot to go on, reviewing a new TV series can be more like describing a forked path, and guessing which way each turn could lead. This was how it was this year with, for instance, 2 Broke Girls, whose pilot could continue down a good path (suggested by the good match of Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs) and a bad one (suggested by the pilot’s stereotype humor and dated, cartoony depiction of New York City). With Terra Nova (my mostly disappointed review of the pilot will be out in the upcoming TIME), the following episodes could build on the cool premise and spectacular visuals, or flatline by failing to improve the underdeveloped characters and cliché dialogue.

And tonight we have Person of Interest, one of the fall pilots I was most excited about in theory. The first episode, unfortunately, is mostly a dull bad-guy chase with an uninteresting protagonist. It also has hints–just hints–of a fascinating show about the implications of technology and the limits of knowledge. But I don’t know if it really wants to, or will be allowed to, become that more interesting show.

The premise, as I described it in my Test Pilot preview earlier this year: Lost’s Michael Emerson is Finch, a software billionaire who developed a program for the government that would analyze surveillance data to predict and prevent terror attacks. Now, on his own, he wants to tap into the same system to prevent murders. It’s a rogue operation so he needs muscle, and finds it in Reese (Jim Caviezel), a former special ops agent who has spiraled into drunken depression after a personal trauma.

Finch cleans Reese up, taps into his sense of justice and explains the twists: the algorithm he created—drawing on traffic cameras and the numerous other public tracking devices everywhere—can identify future crimes. It can’t always find the perpetrator, though: it spits out a Social Security number, which may identify the future criminal or the future victim. It’s Reese’s job to investigate. (Meanwhile, an NYPD detective, played by Taraji P. Henson, gets wind of his activities and is investigating him.)

CBS hasn’t sent anything beyond the original pilot, so my first impression still holds:  what in theory is a compelling sci-fi story of a surveillance society almost out of The Prisoner is, in practice, a colorless crime show in which no character is very well drawn. (Part of the problem, at least in the pilot, is that the mechanics of the premise means that we spend a lot of time listening to Finch tell Reese about the people he’s investigating, rather than seeing character develop through action and observation.)

Emerson is unsurprisingly gripping when he’s on the screen—doing, to be sure, much the same look-to-the-middle-distance-while-talking-unsettlingly thing he did as Ben Linus on Lost. (Lost’s J. J. Abrams is an executive producer here.) But the action, and thus most of the pilot, falls to Caviezel, who either by a poor choice or a poor performance make Reese a black hole of personality and character. I get that he has withdrawn out of trauma, but he ends up not a fascinating enigma so much as a blank space. When Emerson is off screen, the show loses its voice entirely.

What gives me a flicker of hope is that there could be a good series here. After all, the premise has a built-in tension: how comfortable should you be with the idea of being protected by a system of constant spying? How do we know how accurate Finch’s program can be? What kind of man is Finch to have devised it, and what in his background drove him to it? (On a shallower level, why, apparently, does he intend to use it to prevent murders only in the NYC metro area? Surely he can afford plane fare.) The pilot seems conscious of a bigger, darker story and more unsettling questions–but only barely, as suggested by occasional off-kilter shots of traffic cams and sinister music, but little in the actual script.

I went to the TCA panel on the show this summer and got the same frustrated feeling I often do at such sessions: the show that the creator (Jonathan Nolan, The Dark Knight) was talking about was way better than the show than I actually saw on screen. He had a lot to say about the extent to which people are willing to trade privacy for security; the ability of computers to data-mine our information and draw conclusions from it; the risks of surveillance that is omnipresent but not necessarily infallible; and, of course, the danger of that kind of power used for less-noble purposes.

It sounded fascinating. And then I look at the pilot he actually produced, this somber, high-tech update of The Equalizer–where, when it comes down to it, we’re pretty much expected to cheer for Big Brother. (Or as the network p.r. materials put it, “their own brand of vigilante justice.” Um, yay, vigilante justice?)

It’s hard to know what it means when a producer talks a good game like this with his pilot. It could mean that the show will improve. It could mean that the producer just knows how to spin the press. Or it could mean that the producer, in his heart of hearts, knows that he has a potentially interesting idea that he just can’t develop, because of what the network wants (say, a self-contained procedural with an unambiguous hero) or any number of other reasons.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a TV critic, it’s that you don’t give something a better review on the basis of what the network or the producers swear is coming up if you stick with it. (Or on the basis of how much I want that to be true.) In this case, I have only the actual pilot of Person of Interest, which I would not want to watch another week of, though I’d be glad to return to it if it delivers on its promise. Unfortunately, there’s no software program that can predict that future for me.