“Person of Interest”: Quirky TV Vigilantes Go Hi-Tech

Derek Stowe, El Vaquero Staff Writer

“Victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up, we’ll find you,” are the ominous words of Finch’s opening narration to each adrenaline-charged episode of the new TV drama “Person of Interest.”

On Oct. 25, the CBS television network announced it had ordered a full season of the hi-tech, sci-fi crime drama, and with good reason: it has original writing, consistent directing and talented acting.

How Finch and Reese solve heinous crimes before they happen has captured the attention of a wide audience, above all, in the demographic of adults ranging 18 to 49, according to Nielsen ratings.

The vigilante duo thwarts crimes about to take place using a highly sophisticated network of cameras and eavesdropping technology sanctioned by the post 9/11 Patriot Act.

The pilot episode earned the highest test ratings of any drama pilot in 15 years when it netted 13.2 million viewers for its Sept. 22 air date, ultimately prompting CBS to let “Person of Interest” keep Thursdays at 9 p.m., CSI’s primetime slot held for more than 10 years.

Created by Jonathan Nolan and produced by J.J. Abrams, “Person of Interest” touts casting genius with film star Jim Caviezel as John Reese, a former Green Beret/CIA operative. Reese is like a Tasmanian devil blending in as a soft spoken, keen observer, but able to spring to life when it counts.

The veteran star had his breakthrough performance in “The Thin Red Line” (1998) and landed lead roles in films such as “The Count of Monte Cristo” (2002) and “The Passion of the Christ” (2004). Caviezel has the credibility to deliver the serious acting needed to lure and addict even the most tentative viewer.

2009 Emmy award winner Michael Emerson (“Lost”), playing quirky billionaire/programmer Harold Finch, is a good Samaritan who has hired Reese to do reconnaissance. Finch’s “machine” searches out trouble using a government-financed network of dynamic cameras linked up to pattern-recognition software.

Emerson’s droll chemistry with Caviezel adds to the show’s intrigue: What grisly plot will they discover next, and how will they react to it?

As the camera isolates pedestrians, the screen gives a readout of their occupation and social security numbers much like the robots in the “Terminator” movies. Finch and Reese are interpreted as “missing” because the government presumes them dead.

Finch’s secret access to these Orwellian cameras allows him to identify persons of interest who are either planning to commit a violent crime or getting close to falling victim to one.

That’s where the plausibility factor goes off the grid.

Assuming such surveillance technology is in existence, the cost of wiring up every New York City block to monitor each and every angle with such good resolution would be gargantuan. Plus, sifting through millions of hours of white noise is hard to fathom; and without a warrant, the data would be inadmissible in court.

Nonetheless, it is enlightening to be able to observe the population’s every move. Knowing that America’s evil-doers are at least under surveillance in TV land is somewhat comforting.

But the whole notion must wreak havoc on right-to-privacy advocates. It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of being on candid camera. (Hey, no need to obsess: it’s only a TV show.)

Society’s paranoia has hardly subsided since the terrorist attacks of 2001, so exposing this government machinery’s hi-tech, confidential components presents an encouraging tribute to homeland security.

In a typical episode, a viewer can expect to see a close examination of a newly targeted person of interest for whom a complex combination of conspiracy and murder is about to unravel.

Violence is certain to take place as Reese miraculously arrives to crush the perpetrators just in time. What’s not predictable is how he does it: whether with military-style chest kicks, arm-breaks, head-snaps, knife-throws or gun shots while diving for cover, the jaw-dropping action is good enough to keep the viewers hooked and wanting more, afraid to click their remotes and miss something good.

Reese is oddly relaxed in the face of danger, which gives the viewer a sense of calm: that he has everything under control. But he is almost too relaxed to be convincing as an action hero. His whispered, pithy one-liners bring to mind Clint Eastwood.

“Migraine, huh?” says Reese after tasering a guilty pharmaceuticals kingpin. “I’ve heard they got a pill for that now.”

At $2-3 million per episode, there’s at least one good car chase and the filming is always realistic: when things blow up, it looks natural. During a bank robbery, the use of a “Blair Witch” shaky cam along with grainy surveillance footage helps put the viewer right in the scene.

Two more things contribute to the show’s originality: Finch’s clever lines of investigation that gradually lead to an “aha” motive, and the occasional use of his own personal millions to seal the bad guys’ fate.

The “Person of Interest” storylines have lots of twists and turns. One minute someone is pegged as a victim and the next, he or she turns out to be the villain. But the plot is not impossible to follow as it usually was in “Lost.”

Viewers can expect to be on the edge of their seats not unlike in the movie “Source Code” (2011) where Jake Gyllenhaal must pay close attention to perpetrator behavior if he is to avert a vicious terror attack on a train.

The guest stars give strong performances as well: and heavy on the attitude. For example, Paige Turco, who plays a resourceful fixer who retrieves a lost police revolver using her Harlem connection, has a knack for giving Reese orders from the backseat of the car while she changes into a sexy outfit.

“Keep your eyes on the road,” she says adding a taste of feisty humor. Tongue-in-cheek comments pepper every scene to keep the viewer chuckling until the next bit of action.

The suspense grows as the vigilante duo seems to slip further and further from knowing if they can intervene in time to save each victim. This is effective storytelling. There is momentum in the jumps, and from episode to episode Nolan has woven in another looming character that is up to no good.

The bulldog detective Carter played by Taraji P. Henson from “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) serves as the grounding element of the law. She always shows up to sort out the aftermath of each take-down.

Without the need to hassle with warrants, these two eclectic crime-stoppers employ covert intelligence à la “Mission Impossible” to execute a poetic justice most satisfying to the viewer.

The wide appeal of “Person of Interest” comes from these vigilantes’ complementary eccentricity. The intellectual Finch, who walks with a limp, masterminds the Patriot machine, while the physical Reese, a once homeless vet, uses new-found altruism to tackle any situation with the savvy of a Seal Team Six member.

“Person of Interest” will likely continue to earn good ratings as long as Abrams makes optimum use of his gifted actors, imaginative writing and effective direction.