If you want to see the best, most intelligent science fiction to grace our television screens in decades, bar none… I sincerely hope you’re watching Person of Interest. Put simply, this show is what science fiction is supposed to be for.
PoI turned out to be the kind of SF show that snuck up on its audiences… which has only added to its power. When it began, it seemed like an odd take on the police detective format, with one character—computer specialist Harold Finch—feeding information to his field operative—ex-special-ops agent John Reese—in order to find that week’s person of interest. That person had been tagged by Finch’s computer, The Machine, to become involved in a violent crime, said prediction based on The Machine’s ability to tap into the audio, video and other electronic feeds that are ubiquitous today, analyzing the data and making deductions about what would happen. Finch and his crew would use the latest technology to tap into the person’s life and learn enough to intercede and save someone’s day.
The first season seemed to be built around the fairly standard “case of the week” scenario, in which Finch would feed Reese enough information to find the person he was after and stop whatever crime was going to happen. At the beginning, the audience (and Reese) didn’t know who Finch was, other than a mysterious man with a literally stiff neck, a lot of money, an incredibly odd computer that didn’t tell him everything, and a hidey-hole in an old library somewhere.
But the background stories, given to us in flashbacks apparently stored by The Machine itself, were the real meat of the show, as we were further introduced to Harold Finch and his past, and learned more about The Machine. We learned that Finch was part of a team laboring to create a truly sentient AI that would work for the government, poring through all available electronic data being collected and communicated, studying it for possible threats to the country, and dispatching agents to quell the threat. In a post-9/11 world, such a goal was more than understandable; but thanks to our post-1984 world, concerns about Big Brother meant the project had to be kept very classified. Not surprisingly, shady government organizations found out and tried to take control of the all-seeing Machine, Finch’s partner was assassinated, and Finch, badly injured after his own failed assassination attempt, had to give up his promising future and go into hiding.
So far, so cliché, really. But it was in its second season that PoI started to show its real science fiction chops. As we watched Finch discover exactly how clever The Machine was, he also discovered that it had imprinted upon him, much like a child imprints on a mother. Finch found himself struggling to prevent The Machine’s getting too intelligent or independent, to avoid its questioning its orders to find persons of interest… and constantly surprised at The Machine’s ability to counter his efforts. The Machine was already growing faster than Finch could contain it, and he constantly worried about the chance that it would go rogue.
And The Machine decided that it needed another set of hands: Root, another genius hacker who had discovered on her own that The Machine was out there, was given access to it by The Machine itself. Taking orders directly from The Machine, not through Finch, Root seemed to be able to operate in the real world as if she was a living extension of The Machine, using its senses to see through walls and around corners, anticipate moves and attacks, and act as if she were literally clairvoyant. Root was more devoted to The Machine than Finch, seeing it as her God, and she as her disciple and instrument. And Finch regularly discovered that the tasks The Machine gave Root to accomplish, while often beyond his ken, always served Finch’s desire to help people, maintain his secrecy and the safety of his operatives. Still, Finch and Root regularly disagreed about The Machine’s intentions and actions, as well as the basic nature of the intelligence Finch had created.
Gotten deep enough for you? Then the next step in the series became even deeper, when The Machine took even more initiative, having itself moved into hiding from even Finch to avoid being controlled by government forces; followed by the surfacing of a new machine built by a new organization, code-named Samaritan, which the government chose to take over The Machine’s job under their full control… except that the creators of Samaritan weren’t as altruistic as Finch… and neither was Samaritan. Soon Finch’s worst nightmare, an amoral AI controlled by unscrupulous individuals with their own personal agendas and no moral code, came true. And at this point, the efforts on the street as Reese and their recruited assistants fight the war against crimes has taken a back seat to the real story, the advancement of AI and its ramifications to the world.
One episode showed Samaritan influence an election; and we discovered that Samaritan had done this over 50 times, cementing its control over the country’s leaders and working inexorably to no less than global control. The Machine continued to hide, to feed info to Finch and the gang, and presumably, to counter and prepare against the eventual assault by Samaritan. The final seasons were a frightening last-ditch game of chess between the two AIs and their human handlers and agents, with a number of human casualties, including main characters, before the final checkmate move that would decide the world.
Impressed by Terminator… worried about Skynet? BAH. PoI was more realistic, more likely, and therefore more scary, than any James Cameron notion of human-machine conflicts. PoI was examining machine intelligence, privacy, morals and humanitarianism, and how they will affect our lives and our world. Compared to most TV SF, using analogues, symbolism, nods and winks to create entertaining fables designed to anchor us to commercial breaks… Person of Interest stared unblinkingly into the eyes of the future we are creating in real life today.
If you want more from science fiction than weird aliens, light sabers and hoverboards—if you want intelligent and well-considered science fiction concepts, and like stories about how those elements will impact our world—you should find Person of Interest. If you like writing serious science fiction, you should be watching this show… and taking notes.
(And when you’re done with Person of Interest, you can go catch up on Orphan Black… the second most intelligent SF series on TV.)