Tuned In

You Are Watching Big Brother: The Disturbing Spy Games of Person of Interest

A mass audience is watching a drama about a creepy surveillance system that is watching and analyzing their every move--and cheering for the creepy surveillance system.

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CBS's eye on America: Caviezel and Emerson are watching you.

Earlier this week, CBS picked up Person of Interest, its surveillance/vigilante drama airing Thursdays, for a full season. The show’s a solid success, if not a smash, getting in the neighborhood of 14 million total viewers a week. Which presents the intriguing situation that a mass audience is watching a drama about a creepy surveillance system that is watching and analyzing their every move–and cheering for the creepy surveillance system.

Several weeks into the season, I have to say that POI is not a good show, if I’m judging it by standards like performances and dialogue and the suspense level of the cases of the week. But from the standpoint of what the show is saying about privacy–and what it seems to be suggesting about its viewers’ attitude toward liberties–it’s maybe the most interesting new drama of the year.

Some of POI’s liabilities I’ve discussed in my earlier posts. Either because of his limitations, or a misguided conscious choice, Jim Caviezel can’t make Reese anything other than an angsty android of vengeance. Finch is the more interesting character, and Michael Emerson uses all his unsettling wiles to suggest mystery and depth to him, but it’s still no more than suggestion, mainly because the show needs to use him so heavily as an expository device, feeding Reese information about the guest character he’s protecting, chasing, or both.

Which brings us to a big dramatic problem of POI: it’s the antithesis of showing, not telling. Instead, it surveils, and tells a lot. A typical episode opens with several minutes of a guest character being observed from a distance, while Finch rattles off background information to Reese, and Reese reports back. There may be no worse way to build organic, emotional interest in a character than to introduce us by having someone else talk about them for the whole first act, but POI has made that the foundation of its drama.

Where POI gets interesting–if teasingly, frustratingly so–is in the way it treats the surveillance system that the premised is based on. The idea of a government spy system that monitors our every move is–you would think–inherently creepy. And POI treats it that way–but also treats it as desirable and essential.

In the intro to each episode, Finch describes the system to the viewer: a spy system designed to anticipate terrorist attacks proved capable of predicting murders. But, he notes caustically, the government did not think that information was worth using–so he decided to take matters in his own hands and do it himself.

So from the get-go, POI takes as its premise that the government set up a secret system to invade our privacy, and that we will be outraged… that the government is not using it enough. Freakin’ wusses!

And yet, the show doesn’t exactly take a gung-ho, Team America attitude toward cybersnooping either. Weirdly, when it represents the spy system, the dark visual and musical cues paint it as scary and sinister–not much differently than the attitude past sci-fi shows about totalitarianism and panopticons (like The Prisoner) have.

But the mood-setting is as far as POI goes in suggesting that all this surveillance might be a bad thing. The main characters don’t really stop to think about the ethics of what they’re doing, or about what the government might be doing with all this apparatus. And as far as the dramatic structure of POI is concerned, the spy system is all good: without it, innocent people would die, every week.

The result is a show that is a kind of meta-commentary on the audience’s own (implied) attitudes toward surveillance. This kind of snooping power, the show’s mood suggests, is depressing and disturbing. And yet you need it, badly, because the world outside is so disturbing and lawless and broken–it’s a world where, as in last week’s episode, the by-the-books law can’t so much as protect the son of a judge from kidnapping for extortion purposes.

If you just landed on Earth from another planet and had to deduce what our society was like just by watching POI, what would you infer? Probably that we lived in a country whose basic social structures had practically broken down, where the constitutional law systems were corrupt and impotent to protect the innocent. (As opposed to a society in which violent crime has trended downward for the past decade and a half.) A country whose citizens recognized that having one’s privacy invaded was not a good thing, but that they lived in such a sick, sad world that it was the best of bad alternatives. I don’t think that’s actually a fair description of the world we live in. But it must be one that resonates with enough CBS cop-show viewers.

The other question is why POI would walk right up to the edge of telling an ambivalent story about the tradeoffs of surveillance, without ever actually, explicitly voicing that ambivalence. I can’t read the producers’ minds–or use a CIA computer program–to tell you why.

But my guess is that creator Jonathan Nolan, who has a predilection for dark, complex stories, probably has an ideal version of POI in his head. That version of the show, I suspect, is much more morally gray and conflicted about the pluses and minuses of the technology that provides its premise, and has something to say about the balance of security and freedom, convenience and privacy, in a world of terrorism, data mining and social networking.

And if he had sold POI to, say, a cable network, he might have been able to explore that more fully. (He might have made something something like Showtime’s Homeland, which is much more upfront about the pros and cons of government spy power.) But instead he’s making it for CBS, the home of law-and-order (lowercase) crime procedurals, so instead what we get is what he’s given us: a show that can only hint at the darkness in its own premise.

Which oddly, makes the show play, in a meta way, as if it were actually a drama produced in some kind of surveillance state. If you listen and look closely, you get the hint that POI is disturbed by its own premise, and would love to have the chance to question it in a more challenging way. But it can’t say any of that out loud. The system might be listening.