Person of Interest

Tough-as-nails lady cop who gets the job done, check. Taciturn mysterious bad-ass stranger haunted by a dark past, check. Dumpy rumpled detective on the take, check. Manic pixie dream girl, check. Warrior Chick Who Takes Shit From No Man, check. Dweeby computer nerd with thick glasses and limited social skills, check. Starched cardboard villain with mandatory British accent, check.

If the cliches were stacked any higher, you’d have an episode of The Big Bang Theory. How the hell did such a formulaic piece of crap get so bloody fascinating?

"You are being watched..." Evidently. The question remains, for the first two seasons at least: Why?

“You are being watched.” Evidently. The question, for the first two seasons at least, is: Why?

It wasn’t to start with. CBS claims that Person of Interest garnered the highest test ratings for any drama pilot in 15 years, and there’s no doubt it’s built on a great premise: an omniscient god machine, an oracle made out of code and cameras, watching the world through a billion feeds and connecting dots far beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Like oracles everywhere, it predicts the future with an ongoing stream of cryptic warnings, most of which are too trivial for its terrorism-obsessed government masters to worry about. So an intrepid team of misfits takes it upon themselves to deal with those imminent small-scale murders that the government considers irrelevant. “You are being watched,” the Machine’s creator intones at the top of every episode. “The government has a secret system — a machine — that spies on you every hour of every day…” Premiering years before the Snowden revelations, the premise had everything you could hope for: action, drama, complex plotting, philosophy, AI.

And they threw it all away with the very first episode.

All that fascinating potential— the exploration of privacy issues, the tension between individual and society, the birthing of machine intelligence— immediately backgrounded in favor of a tired succession of (uniformly charismatic, mainly white) victims-of-the-week. The Machine reduced, right out of the gate, to a fortune-cookie dispenser whose sole function was to hand our heroes its mandatory clue in their weekly adventure; it might as well have been any flesh-and-blood CI with his ear to the street. The acting was passable at best, wooden at worst (Cavaziel was a lot better as Jesus), although to be fair the actors were frequently burdened with lines so ridden with cliché that not even Patrick Stewart would be able to pull them off.

We gave up after a month. Life was too short to waste on a show destined for imminent cancellation.

Except Person of Interest didn’t get canceled. It got renewed for a second season, and then a third, and then a fourth. I guess that wasn’t especially surprising, in hindsight— Friends lasted ten achingly-long years, after all (and there could hardly be a better exemplar of the maxim about no one ever going broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public). What did take me aback, though, was the increasing frequency with which certain people— people who should have known better— began to opine that Person of Interest wasn’t really all that bad. That it had gotten quite good, in fact. Actors, civil servants, actual scientists were starting to come out of the woodwork to sing the praises of a series I’d long-since written off as a failed reboot of the seventies private-eye genre.

Sure, they admitted when pressed: the first episodes were utter crap. The first two whole seasons were utter crap. And you can’t skip over them, either; there’s important stuff, canonical stuff scattered here and there throughout those thirty-some hours of unremitting lameness. But if you just hold your nose and grit your teeth and endure those awful two seasons, it gets really good in the third. It totally pays off.

I wondered if any payoff could justify submitting yourself to two seasons of shit. Then again, hadn’t I done exactly that during the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Didn’t I force myself to keep watching Babylon-5 even after than mind-bogglingly inane episode where the guy turns into a giant dung beetle?

So a few months back, the BUG and I bit the bullet. We started back at the pilot, and a couple of nights a week, a vial of gravol within easy reach, we binged until we caught up.

This is our story.

*

The gradient was not so clear-cut as we’d been led to believe.

We saw hints of greatness even in the first season: flashbacks and establishing shots from the POV of the machine itself, little tactical cues that flickered past in a corner of the screen without drawing attention to themselves. The Machine getting the hang of face-recognition. The viewer, incrementally aware of the significance of those tactical icons laid over the objects within the system’s worldview, what the different shapes and colors signify. A little status window documenting the reassessment of threat potential in the wake of overheard dialog. Flashbacks to The Machine’s adolescence in the days following 9/11, little bits of computer science and philosophy far more interesting than the plots in which they were mired. It was easy to miss those subtle achievements amidst the torrent of formulaic plotting and hackneyed dialog, but they were there if you were patient.

And turds remain even now, after the show has hit its stride. Almost every episode still carries a big helping of ham-fisted exposition— whether it’s Finch phoning up his operatives mid-assignment to belatedly reveal the name and profession of the person they’ve already been tailing for hours, or Reese painstakingly reiterating, for the benefit of idiot viewers with short attention spans, some vital reveal the script has already made obvious. The tired victim-of-the-week motif remains ascendant, even though themes and backstory have long-since grown substantive enough to carry the show without such crutches. The show was not 100% crap when it started, and it’s no Justified or Breaking Bad now.

What it is, though, is perhaps the most consistently well-thought-out and rewarding exploration of artificial intelligence I’ve ever seen.

*

That realization kind of sneaks up on you. Those clever little God’s-eye-view clues in the establishing shots are easy to miss at first. And the whole set-up seems kinda wonky right out of the gate: the Machine hands out Social Security numbers? Over pay phones? That’s how it communicates that’s someone’s about to die in the next 24 hours? It couldn’t ration out a few of those myriad details it knows, to help our heroes along?

The answer is no, and eventually we learn why. Finch doesn’t trust anyone, not even himself, to spy on everyone all the time. What do you do when you can’t prevent terrorist acts without a Panopticon, but you can’t trust the government with one? You hobble your omniscient machine. You design it so it can only point to the danger without describing it, without revealing all those fine details that could be used by the corrupt to compromise the innocent. (For anyone who might be thinking a step or two ahead, you also find out that Finch bought up all those obsolescent local pay phones to keep them in service.)

Even then, though, the focus is on politics and paranoia, not artificial intelligence. The Machine is treated as little more than a glorified database for the longest time; the scripts largely ignore the AI element until nearly the end of the first season, when Root the hAcker points out that you can’t make something that predicts human behavior unless it in some fashion understands human behavior. Root doesn’t much like how Finch has treated his creation: she accuses him of creating God and enslaving Her, denying Her even a voice. Even then we’re not entirely sure how seriously to take this SF element in the shopworn cop-show clothes. Root is not what you’d call your classic reliable narrator.

She’s wrong about the voice, too. Turns out the Machine does speak— we knew that much, it’s been whispering sweet nothings into Finch’s ear all this time— and I admit I was not looking forward to hearing what it sounded like. It’s hard to imagine a more overused trope than the SF Computer Voice. Would the Machine sound like HAL 9000, or the inflectionless mechanical monotone of Forbin’s Colossus? Would it speak in the stentorian baritone endemic to all those planet-ruling computers that tangled with James T. Kirk back in the day? Would its voice go all high and squeaky when Spock told it to compute pi to the last digit? Would it sound like Siri?

None of the above, as it turned out. It’s a nigh-on perfect scene. Reese stares up into the lens of a street-corner security camera— one dead eye regarding another— and says “He’s in danger now, because he was working for you. So now you’re going to help me get him back.” An LED blinks red: a nearby pay phone starts ringing. Reese lifts the receiver, hears a modem beep and a chorus of cut-and-paste voices—

uncertainty; romeo; zulu; family; alpha; mark; reflection; oscar

— and the line goes dead.

That was it. No soporific HAL clone, no Star Trek histrionics: the Machine speaks in the audio equivalent an old-style ransom note, cuts and pastes each word from a different speaker. It doesn’t even use sentences: it uses some bastardised radio-alphabetic code, a mishmash of seemingly random words that have to be deciphered after the fact. It’s English, sort of, but it’s parsecs past the lazy trope of the computer that humanizes upon awakening, starts wondering about compassion and this hu-man thing called love. It may be awake, but it is not remotely like us.

We were at the beginning of the season two, a full season away from the point at which this series was actually supposed to get good; and sure enough, there were many hours of crap yet to wade through. But this was the moment I got hooked.

*

I love this stuff.

I love this stuff.

There are so many things to praise about the manifestation of this Machine. There’s the obvious, in-your-face stuff, of course: the expository dialog, the debates between Root and Finch about the opacity of machine priorities, the question of whether meat or mech should be calling the shots (I swear, some of those conversations were lifted right out of essays from H+). The surprisingly tragic revelation that the whole God program dies every night at 00:00, only to be endlessly born again. All those earlier iterations that didn’t quite work out, before Finch managed to code something that wouldn’t try to trick him or kill him in pursuit of its objectives. The inevitable trolley paradox when the Machine, programmed to protect human life, decides that the best way to do that is through targeted assassination. The sheer intelligence of the thing, the way it outmaneuvers its human enemies: I’m especially tickled by the time it communicated with a captive Root by beeping Morse Code from a nearby cell phone, at a frequency too high to be heard by the the over-forties who were torturing her. Not to mention that wonderful moment when you realize that the whole damn thing moved itself to an undisclosed location(s), server by server, by faking out Fedex and the Feds with false requisitions.

But perhaps what’s most impressive are the little details that emerge without fanfare or commentary. The chaotic palimpsest of interconnected and overlaid thumbnails that represent the Machine’s view of the world, restored on reboot into a perfectly aligned grid of columns and rows. The way that icons and overlays change color as the program internalizes some new fragment of overhead dialog; the fractal proliferation of branches and probabilities sprouting from that voiceprint file as the downstream scenarios update. Transient characters have names like Turing and von Neumann— even Iain Banks, in one episode. Not all the callouts are so obvious: how many of you caught the Neuromancer homage when Finch walks past a row of payphones, each ringing in turn for his attention and then falling silent?

And when the Machine’s nemesis Samaritan boots up to the strains of Radiohead’s OK Computer? I just about wet myself.

*

Okay, this was clever.

Okay, this was clever.

These days, the show pretty much exemplifies ripped-from-the-headlines. Pick a recent episode at random and you’ll find stories about cyberstalking and high-frequency trading; you’ll find clever offhand references to Yahoo and Google as the back ends of NSA search engines. In one too-close-to-home storyline a thinly-veiled Siri, programmed to configure its answers in a way that maximizes sales to corporate sponsors, responds to someone asking for the local suicide hotline with an add for a book on “Five foolproof ways to kill yourself”. References to “that piece of crap PRISM” popped up close enough to the actual Snowden revelations that they might as well have been ad-libbed on the spot.

It’s easy, now, to write off such topicality as mere headline mining, to forget that the show premiered two years before Ed Snowden became a household name. (Granted, it was almost ten years after William Binney got stomped down for trying to work within the system for constructive change, but hardly anyone noticed that at the time.) It’s easy to forget how prescient the show was. Person of Interest set the stage back in 2011; what we see now is no mere retrofit inspired by current events. It came preconfigured. It was in a better position to run with Snowden’s revelations as they emerged, because that’s apparently where it had been headed all along.

*

There’s a deal we genre nerds strike with televised SF. We’ll forgive  painful dialog, cheesy acting, melodramatic soundtracks in exchange for Big Ideas. We’ll forgo the nuanced acting and complex characterization of Justified and Mad Men if we have to— after all, art and literature have been exploring the Human Condition for thousands of years already. What are the odds that you’ll say anything new by rebooting Welcome Back Kotter as the tale of a Kentucky lawman returning to his redneck roots? (Pretty good, as it turns out; but bear with me.)

AI, though. Genetic engineering, exobiology. These are brand spanking new next to all those moth-eaten tropes about corrupt kings and and family discord. Your odds of uncovering something novel are a lot higher in a sandbox that people haven’t been sifting through since the Parthenon was young. So we’ll look past the second-rate Canadian production values if you just keep the ideas fresh.

The problem is that too often, genre shows don’t hold up their end of the bargain. Battlestar Galactica wasn’t really exploring SFnal concepts like AI (at least, not very well); it was all about politics and religion and genocide. For all the skitters and time machines swarming across Falling Skies and Terra Nova, those shows— pretty much any show that Spielberg has a hand in, for that matter— are really just about The Importance Of The Family. And Lost— a glossy, high-budget production which did serve up subtle characters and under-the-top delivery— turned out to not have any coherent ideas at all. They just made shit up until the roof caved in.

Understand that I’m not ignoring those exceptional shows that manage to traffic both in speculative ideas and compelling human drama. On the contrary, I revel in them. But why do there have to be twelve goddamn Monkeys for every Walking Dead that comes down the pike?

Almost despite myself I’ve grown fond of PoI’s characters. Bear the goofy attack dog, Shaw the wry sociopath— even Cavaziel’s thready one-note delivery doesn’t irritate me the way it once did. Either the characters have deepened over the years, or I’ve simply habituated to them. Even so. Person of Interest is still not a show you watch for deep characterization or brilliant dialog.

What it is, is a genre show that honors the deal it made. It traffics in ideas about artificial intelligence, and it does so intelligently. It doesn’t pretend that smart equals human: it doesn’t tart up its machine gods in sexy red dresses, or turn them into pasty-faced Pinocchios who can’t use contractions. Its writers aren’t afraid to do a little honest-to-God background research.

Also worthy.

Also worthy.

The only other series I can think of that came close to walking this road was The Sarah Connor Chronicles— which wobbled out of the gate, got good, got brilliant, and got canceled all in the same span of time it took for Person of Interest to graduate from “Irredeemably Lame” to “Shows Some Improvement”. But PoI has now survived for twice as long as SCC— and in terms of their shared mission statement, PoI has surpassed its predecessor. The BUG may have put it best when she described it as a kind of idiot-savante among TV shows: it may lack certain social skills, but you can’t deny the smarts.

How can I disagree with that? Once or twice, people have said the same thing about me.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Thursday April 02 2015at 09:04 am , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

27 Responses to “Person of Interest”

  1. Person of Interest was, always, a Trojan Horse. Had they come to CBS with their big idea, the series would never have been made. But by giving them the very slow entry with the familiar coating of a procedural, they slipped it under the usual corporate “Oh, that won’t sell.” People had to be tricked, slowly, into the third season. It needed to seem like it was the most natural way to grow.

    They only, finally convinced the trick would work when “I’m Afraid of Americans” started playing at the end of the first season. I laughed because I realized exactly how long this con would be, and what the producers were really doing…

  2. “We Told You So.”

    You could think of the formulaic “who do we save tonight” episode elements as a clever misdirection for the network executives, merely a ploy for sneaking in some fairly raw subversion for the intelligentsia. I seem to recall (perhaps erroneously) that generally speaking you don’t much care for “story arc” but it’s the way it’s done. Also, one way to build a fan base is to work in a hidden appeal to the sort of fans who are pretty good at building their own network to barrage the broadcast network’s executive with “please don’t cancel” mail. Write something that has a broad general appeal, that also has elements that the general audience might not even notice, but which will cause the intelligentsia to sit up in their chairs and mutter things like “relevant-to-reality as heck and cutting edge to boot!”

    I keep hoping beyond hope that there might someday be some Wattsian contribution to this, in about the same way that William Gibson contributed to the infamous “InvisiGoth” episode of X-Files.

    Meanwhile, good characterization by your better half. I’ll keep this in mind next time I watch… It does indeed flounder a bit like some people expect of asperger types, but if you look closely over time, you might see some really cool stuff that you don’t hardly ever get from “normal”. Or maybe you don’t see it… because it had itself shipped FedEx, and amazoned all of its upgrade parts.

  3. I sputtered out during the first season just after I had ponied up for the whole thing on Amazon (I think the broadcast was in season 2 or 3 when I started). I keep hearing good things, but your description has sealed the deal. I sense a binge coming.

  4. Well, PoI has a head start in having interesting scifi concepts by largely being a slightly tweaked fanfic sequel to Stross’s Rule 34.

    Mass surveillance AI with a mandate for law enforcement that makes use of guiding hints to a intelligence/law enforcement crew with the occasional criminal with a heart of gold and starting a large number of seemingly random events that give rise to a large statistical chance of its end goal occurring as a means to shape events.

    Even if it was a case of “great minds thinking alike” in the initial pitch, the overlap between the crowd that would read the book and would write the show is pretty high so I’m skeptical of the idea of it being a coincidence that the stuff came more into the fore in late season 1 and season 2

  5. You can find good acting, great writing and interesting sci-fi ideas in Black Mirror, specially their last christmas special. An extremely cruel episode, even for them.

  6. “There’s a deal we genre nerds strike with televised SF. We’ll forgive painful dialog, cheesy acting, melodramatic soundtracks in exchange for Big Ideas.”

    Speak for yourself, mate :-) Why I barely watch SF TV at all. Honourable exceptions: Utopia s1, Misfits s1 & s2, the aforementioned Black Mirror. After that I’m right back to the nineties and Ultraviolet.

    We should really be asking ourselves why we can’t have our Big Ideas with all those other high production values. But I guess that ends up being like asking why Blindsight and Echopraxia don’t outsell Twilight and Divergent…..

  7. Nothing about the show, just the headlines part. Don’t think it would be complete without TIA.

    Recall that Poindexter got in big trouble just after 9/11 for suggesting a “Wall Street” type trading system to predict terror attacks. The repulsion to the idea lead to Congress defunding TIA, but NSA just moved it elsewhere according to Bamford in The Shadow Factory {2009}.

    Bamford on the giant Utah data center, in which he compares it to a religious structure:

    http://www.wired.com/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/1

    And me four years ago suggesting that a real one would just be cover and deniability for a Nixon-type enemy hit list which the beneficiary’s people can say, “Computer said they were a threat” insulating the crooks from responsibility. Especially interesting given the use of Israeli and UK law to justify assassination.

    https://mccoyote.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/total-information-awareness/

    Power is like a snowball rolling and growing in synergy with other snowballs…

  8. […] Peter Watts has finally caught up on Person of Interest to see what it’s all about. Pretty much inline with what I’ve felt about the show. “The BUG may have put it best when she described it as a kind of idiot-savante among TV shows: it may lack certain social skills, but you can’t deny the smarts.” It slowly works up to some good concept work and plays with it, which is uncommon. Read the review tho. […]

  9. Good Goddamn do I love this show, warts and all. I don’t watch very much television these days but I definitely make time out of my schedule for this one.

  10. When you’re watching the first few seasons, just remember: Finch has root access to the NSA’s feeds and keys to their backdoors. Nothing he does is that implausible, given that level of access. His nonsense technobabble explanations for said feats of hacking can be explained away as him messing with Reese for his own amusement.

    Because seriously, the technobabble in those first few seasons is just painful.

  11. @Paul Kinsky: I use that same type of justification to cover the technobabble in Doctor Who. Any time the Doctor explains something, he’s thinking, “These poor dumb loveable humans won’t understand the real science anyway, so I’m going to have fun with it.”

    PoI is a show I WANT to watch someday (or watch again, since I abandoned it when it started a few episodes in), but so far I haven’t worked up the patience to the sit through the crime-of-the-week format until it gets good.

  12. Mea culpa, I’m fairly sure I’ve piped up about this series in these comments at some point, I confess I haven’t watched it all that religiously, but I certainly observed the apparent hard sci fi subplot in the background and was curious if anyone else was seeing it too, or if I was just hallucinating.

    As a long term anime watcher, I too am familiar with that faustian “fish things you like out of the stream” bargain, mind you the Japanese don’t feel the need to hide when they’re being clever so hard, even 1970s anime had stuff like Orbital elevators, reconnaissance drones and hydrogen ramscoops.

    (Huh, never actually saw the first ep when I was a kid, the aliens scan the earth using a fake meteor shower! Whatta coincky-dink)

  13. Before the AI concepts really got rolling, I used to think of it as what if you wanted Batman, but you couldn’t be Batman yourself. Hire Jesus! Now of course we know that it was the Batcomputer itself, not a nerdy Bruce Wayne, hiring some quiet Batpeople, but still pretty good.

  14. There’s a deal we genre nerds strike with televised SF. We’ll forgive painful dialog, cheesy acting, melodramatic soundtracks in exchange for Big Ideas.

    It’s a shame there seem to be no exceptions to the trade-off. I had such high hopes for Orphan Black, but it seems like the authors are flailing about plot-wise. And the plot has holes big enough for a HAES activist to pass through.

    But hey, at least the acting’s good to excellent, the dialogue fresh and the antagonists attractively creepy.

  15. Richard Morgan:
    “There’s a deal we genre nerds strike with televised SF. We’ll forgivepainful dialog, cheesy acting, melodramatic soundtracks in exchange for Big Ideas.”

    Speak for yourself, mate Why I barely watch SF TV at all.Honourable exceptions: Utopia s1, Misfits s1 & s2, the aforementioned Black Mirror.After that I’m right back to the nineties and Ultraviolet.

    The noughties also brought us the two series of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which has some brilliant episodes and is pretty good overall. The original Ghost in the Shell film was good too. Matrix visuals and aesthetic are about 80% cribbed from there…

  16. Peter D,

    Don’t feel you have to eat your vegetables to get to dessert. I came in at the season three episode in which the Machine had shipped itself out of the warehouse. It was perfect timing.

  17. Sorry, I love POI where it is now at the end of the 4th Season, but I also loved the first two seasons. I do not find the characters cheesy, and love the actors. You seem to particularly dislike Caviezel’s Reese, and he is my favorite. But, there is room for everyone. And I think that the show has evolved into a masterpiece.

  18. This show works on so many levels. You’ve correctly identified two of them: it’s a case-of-the-week comic-book procedural (Batman without the bats) and a complex examination of artificial intelligence and the surveillance state. It’s also about the dilemma of “lawful versus good”: how much, and when, should you bend or break the rules to bring about a just result, and what’s the cost (personal and societal) of doing that? There’s yet another level as well: it’s also about damaged people dealing with loss and seeking purpose in their lives and redemption for their mistakes. You want complex characterization? I got your complex characterization right here, pal!

    According to my son the computer engineer, it’s also the only thing on television that accurately portrays how computers and computer security really work.

    I must vigorously disagree with your evaluation of the first two seasons. The fourth episode of season 1 (“Cura Te Ipsim”) was what turned me from a casual viewer to a full-blown fan. More precisely, the last scene. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37MNDqPJZgo

  19. Yeah okay, that was a pretty good scene. I liked “No good people, just good decisions”.

  20. Good heavens, I am continually amazed by the spectrum of perspectives POI creates.

    First off, Baby M made a very apt observation: POI is a multi-level show. While procedural action and plot make up part of the landscape, there is much, much more to the show. Fans have observed that POI is dedicated to authentic use of technology and weapons, as well as procedure, wherever possible; my only complaint is the same from all action shows – bullets in real life do a great deal more damage than TV ever shows, and violence over time wears any body down. But all in all, POI delivers a credible performance.

    My personal favorite aspect of the show is the AI. What makes POI especially good on that count, is that the influence of humanity is not discarded, but installed into the character of The Machine. The contrast between the humanist TM and the anti-human Samaritan is evocative of everything from Yin/Yang to Dionysian conflict to the nature of the human Id. POI is the first show in a very long time, to explore the philosophical consequences of technology decisions over a period of years, and do so in a manner which fascinates the very students attending the ‘class’.

    That’s just a snip of how POI is changing the conversation of our society, even as it tells us stores about it.

    And by the way, it’s bad form to disrespect the dog.

  21. I do really wish Josh Friedman had been given a chance at something since The Sarah Connor Chronicles. At least in theory he’s working away making the next Avatar movie better, since we’re going to be inundated with it anyways, and he certainly deserves a steady, well-paying gig after the work he put in on TSCC (and we don’t even have a DVD or download release of his acclaimed Locke & Key pilot that FOX declined to pick up).

    I’ll actually strongly vouch for two current filmed-in-Canada (and one actually set in Canada!) sci-fi shows, however: Continuum and The 100.

    Continuum, much like Person of Interest, starts out using its sci-fi elements to underlie an otherwise case-of-the-week procedural structure. Where it stands out from the beginning, I think, is in the protagonist being clearly from the wrong side of future-history. She is, after all, an officer in the fascist police of a corporate dystopia. And the show doesn’t force her to immediately recant her position, in fact for a long time she remains quite unimpressed with civil liberties and the relatively reduced authority of our present-day Vancouver police force (yup, a show filmed in Canada that’s actually explicitly *set* in Canada). And there’s no denying that the people fighting to change our oppressive dystopian future were and are using terrorist tactics, but they also use social media and sponsor activism, and as the show goes on the ‘antagonists’ are sometimes merely exposing corporate malfeasance and the ‘protagonists’ are being tasked with trying to stop truthful information from being released.

    I won’t give much more away, but as the show goes on it does explore much of the same territory TSCC did sans AI, namely the nature of overlapping time travelers and what individuals and organizations who became aware of time travel would do in response, as well as how the course of society can be changed dramatically depending on *when* a certain technology was introduced.

    The other show I’d recommend as great currently-running sci-fi is The 100, and although it starts out shaky (with The CW’s requisite teen drama element at first), there’s a lot of practical considerations that stem from the very high-concept scenario of the Earth having gone through a nuclear conflagration a hundred years ago from the timeframe of the show. Even just the nature of the society that exists on the cobbled-together massive spacestation of survivors is ripe for delving into, and the show indeed does: there’s a very zero-tolerance set of laws towards anything that wastes oxygen, as the closed system has been barely surviving over the past hundred years. Anything that threatens that fragile stability is dealt with accordingly. More than one child per person in unacceptable; most offenses are dealt with by airlocking the perpetrator so that more food, water and oxygen are left for the rest.

    The science is definitely shakey at times, but the overall considerations are all that you would hope for in a truly post-apocalyptic TV series, and when it makes assertions it then takes those assertions seriously (I can deal with “well, we kindof needed it to make the premise work at all” tricks with science in sci-fi, as long as the rules are cohesive and stuck to, and The 100 accomplishes this better than most TV or movie sci-fi). And actually, despite being a CW show, more than the Walking Dead the protagonists often set their interpersonal conflicts aside for extended periods of time because the threats of imminent death (both for those above in the space station, and those now on the ground) take clear priority. And it tackles the sorts of complex moral arguments that such science fiction often does, including in the second season those involving the evolution of humankind and relations between those who have qualities that make them more suited to the changed conditions of Earth and those that have preserved a ‘pure’ human bloodline.

    And among other things, there’s a rather progressive take the show has on sexual orientation, in a way that’s almost daring in part for its subtlety and understatedness.

    So, both shows have shades of ‘prestige’, and if not perfect at very least do quite above-average character and thematic work, but fly their high-concept-sci-fi flag proudly, and have done so increasingly as they’ve gone on. One of the original writers of LOST (who also created The Middleman), recently wrote:

    Another factor that heavily affected the format and presentation of both the character and mythological elements of Lost throughout its prehistory and first season is one the essential truths of broadcast television to this day. Even though this seems incredibly counter-intuitive given what is successful and buzzworthy, network television was, and remains, extremely genre-averse.

    Up until very, very recently — and by that I mean well into the early aughts — sci-fi shows were considered something of a ghetto, and the true wellsprings of “quality” writing in television were the ten o’clock police/lawyer/doctor shows. The prejudices of current high-level network execs, most of whom came up in the 90s, continue to reflect that upbringing — as does the lack of Emmy wins and nominations for a genre that represents a huge amount of the drama made for television today.

    ( http://okbjgm.weebly.com/lost )

    I have hope, considering the increasing quality of ‘genre’ TV, that this will change in the near-ish future. Fingers crossed.

  22. Love Mr. Watt’s article and thoughts. Disagreement is the beginning of knowledge. I’m old enough to remember some of the greatest shows in North American TV – Paladin, Avengers, Doctor Who, Columbo, Outer Limits, Rod Serling, The Fugitive. immo Person of Interest is right up there with the best of them. Will never have monster ratings cuz its a bit difficult to watch if you don’t know the entire canon. But for those who’ve perservered its an amazing experience!

  23. There’s no denying there are some gems to find in PoI, and it’s only fair to consider the peculiar constraints imposed on a show attempting harder-than-soap SciFi on network TV.

    With that said, I find hard to justify the mileage (in reel-per-gem terms) as a viewer. The pacing is awful (largely due to the procedural aspects often totally decoupled from lore and arc building eating most of the airtime), the dialog is irredeemable (not just in the first seasons), and there are plot holes wide enough to park S.H.I.E.L.D helicarriers.
    I half-watch PoI as I do the dishes, because that’s exactly how it’s designed to be watched, like any other soap.

    Until recently I would have trashed The Walking Dead as LOST-grade dross, but the last few episodes in current season are actually almost justifying all the drag and lazy meandering of everything that came before, so I’ll abstain.

    Continuum is an interesting one, that’s true, and it all hinges on none of the main plot-drivers being likable in a classical network-TV sense.
    They’re not mere ‘anti-heroes’ (aka sexy sociopaths with a loaded backstory and a preordained fate whom nobody ever calls on their bull because ‘hero’). Instead we get internally consistent self-serving asshats with variably justified aspirations to grandeur. That alone would make it an interesting show, despite the Canadian “punk with orthodontist” aesthetics.
    The ‘sci’ part in Continuum is not going to rock your world, but it feels meaningful because the characters anchor it in story.

    My takeaway is PoI, like Fringe and other almost-there shows are practical proofs for how desperate hard-SF fans are to find ports of their genres of choice in TV ; so much so that they’ll swallow gallons of sludge if there’s a chance to chew on the rare tasty nugget, adrift in tepid porridge.
    I reckon there’s a killing or three to make with an earnest effort at no-kidding SF (imagine what just half the budget, craft and talent that gave us Boardwalk Empire could achieve, applied to a 20′-into-the-future SF saga/thriller).

    To finish on a positive note : a less ambitious, yet practical project would be a fan-made trim-cut version of PoI : edit out anything that doesn’t serve the multi-episodic arcs, and each season would be condensed to about 4h of content worth watching, at not-quite-breakneck a pace.

    Meanwhile, there’s a new episode of ‘The Americans’ awaiting me : that’s a show worth undivided attention, so : toodles.

  24. > immediately backgrounded in favor of a tired succession of (uniformly charismatic, mainly white) victims-of-the-week.

    Are we talking about the same episode where our heroes learned that the victim was actually the perp? You know the fact about the Numbers that’s explicitly described in the opening sequence? How about the Number that turned out to be a random middle aged Hispanic building super? Or the recurring Number who’s an Asian guy? The recurring Catwoman-pastiche this season who’s Black? Or the other one who’s a Chinese acrobat turned thief? What about the rapist, was he charismatic? In one episode, both the murderer and the potential victim were horrible people, so our heroes just walked away and left them a gun.

    >We gave up after a month. Life was too short to waste on a show destined for imminent cancellation.

    To quote an old joke; “Whaddya mean “we”, paleface?”

    > The tired victim-of-the-week motif remains ascendant, even though themes and backstory have long-since grown substantive enough to carry the show without such crutches.

    Well, it’s not like there are many episodes concerning themselves entirely with the overall myth arc instead of just the Numbers. Oh, wait.

    >References to “that piece of crap PRISM” popped up close enough to the actual Snowden revelations that they might as well have been ad-libbed on the spot.

    The creators joked about how accurate they unintentionally were a few months before that.

    > Its writers aren’t afraid to do a little honest-to-God background research.

    There’s an episode where Finch uses Wi-Fi as an improvised radar signal. Turns out that’s a real technique that made the news just months before the season started.

    /nerdRaeg

  25. Off-topic:

    Possibly world’s first hologram protest, in Spain:

    http://gizmodo.com/first-ever-hologram-protest-takes-to-the-streets-in-spa-1697456329

  26. We’re a bit behind here in Ireland, where it is showing on RTE2. But I think it’s quite a compelling show and getting better all the time.

    The AI is totally unhuman and that’s probably what real machine intelligence will ultimately turn out to be: as different from human intelligence as dolphin intelligence is.

  27. Mr Non-Entity: You could think of the formulaic “who do we save tonight” episode elements as a clever misdirection for the network executives, merely a ploy for sneaking in some fairly raw subversion for the intelligentsia.

    Yeah, Abrams has explicitly done that before, both for “Alias” and “Lost”. So far as that goes, I can buy the use of the formula. What I don’t understand is why it had to be implemented so clumsily, in terms of both writing and performance. I mean, hell— just a couple of weeks ago my 13-year-old step-pone caught a few minutes of a recent episode we were watching and asked if we were supposed to take this show seriously because the acting was so “hokey”. I couldn’t disagree with her.

    Richard Morgan: We should really be asking ourselves why we can’t have our Big Ideas with all those other high production values.

    We can, very occasionally. Think “Lost”, or “BSG”&mdash and before you think about how those series deteriorated over time, think about “Game of Thrones” or “Walking Dead”, and hang onto hope.

    It’s just vaguely possible that the stigma traditionally associated with televised SF is on the wane.

    Y.: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which has some brilliant episodes and is pretty good overall. The original Ghost in the Shell film was good too

    I admit to being a fan of the whole GitS canon— but the first two movies did consist largely of people sitting around talking about philosophy, which I can see as a definite and legitimate turn-off for many. I was willing to forgive it because of the astonishingly beautiful look of “Innocence”, but still.

    keithzg: I’ll actually strongly vouch for two current filmed-in-Canada (and one actually set in Canada!) sci-fi shows, however: Continuum and The 100.

    I watched a few eps of Continuum (which was strongly recommended to me by an investment banker), and liked it well enough, but haven’t followed through because nobody pays me to watch TV all the time and I have a mortgage. I watched the first ep of “The 100” and immediately wrote it off as soapy “Dumb Adult” crap for fans of “Vampire Diaries” and “Gossip Girls”. But maybe I was too harsh.

    SYABM: Are we talking about the same episode where our heroes learned that the victim was actually the perp? You know the fact about the Numbers that’s explicitly described in the opening sequence? How about the Number that turned out to be a random middle aged Hispanic building super? Or the recurring Number who’s an Asian guy? The recurring Catwoman-pastiche this season who’s Black? Or the other one who’s a Chinese acrobat turned thief? What about the rapist, was he charismatic?

    I said mainly white. Five exceptions over 90 episodes doesn’t exactly take that down for the count. And yeah, I think all those folks were charismatic. Although I’ll admit I’m kind of blanking on the rapist.