It’s worth noting upfront that this post is spoiler-free. I’ve had spirited debates with friends and colleagues about whether intentional spoiling should be considered verbal assault; I won’t retread those here, but suffice it to say I like to avoid spoiling things for people, intentionally or otherwise.
Recently I’ve been rewatching Person of Interest.
In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a crime/sci-fi/action procedural that aired on CBS from 2011 to 2016 about a secret government computer system that spies on citizens to predict and prevent violent crimes. When it started airing, my main activities were studying computer science and watching as many TV shows as possible—favorites from around that time included genre-neighbors like 24, Breaking Bad, Chuck, Psych, The Wire… the list goes on—so Person of Interest was right up my alley.
I enjoyed the show so much that I used it as my example in an application essay for a class at Wesleyan called “Television Storytelling”—the prompt was to briefly discuss a show that demonstrated narrative complexity. As someone who definitely would have considered himself a “TV connoisseur” at the time, I was determined to get into the class, despite not being a film or American studies major (an “outsider,” the professor called me, in our application email exchange). I’d been rejected with The Wire the previous year, but Person of Interest was a lucky second swing: the professor was a fan of the show. I joined and enjoyed the class, and for the final paper I stuck to my winning strategy and wrote about POI again, expanding my application essay into an (upon reread, somewhat overly expositional and unfortunately spoiler heavy) analysis of the show’s journey from classic procedural to high-concept serialized drama.
Now, six years since writing that paper and four since the show concluded, I’m once again three seasons into watching Person of Interest, this time with hindsight (or foresight, depending on your perspective), so of course I’m once again writing about it, too.
POI was created by Jonathan Nolan, younger brother of Christopher and someone whose career I’ve followed with great interest. Nolan’s current project is Westworld on HBO—another favorite of mine—which explores many of the same themes and sci-fi concepts, but for which Nolan (and co-creator Lisa Joy) presumably have far more creative control than Nolan had producing primetime TV for a major network. And I think of it of it as a spiritual sequel to POI; a second album where the band doesn’t have to worry quite so much about getting on the radio. Frankly, its existence is a dream come true for me as a fan.
But a fan listens to their favorite album countless times, until they can practically play it in their mind. Until every word, note, and swell is familiar and comforting. Until the music becomes the backdrop to that entire era of their life, and they can’t listen to it without leaping back to those times. TV shows—particularly network TV shows of that era—were experienced once, usually, over the span of years. They hit you hard and fast and left you reeling for days (sometimes weeks, months!) between episodes. They had exactly 42 minutes to tell their story, and only so much room for subtlety. Leave too much to the imagination, and the audience will imagine something better than you can ever deliver*.
*Lost comes to mind, which I binge-watched after the fact and truly loved, but which massively divided fans who watched it as it aired, and inspired such a torrent of cyberhate that creator Damon Lindelof was forced to quit Twitter. He then proceeded to dunk on all of his haters by creating the two greatest follow-up albums the world’s ever seen: The Leftovers (an exercise in the agony of searching for meaning—and not coincidentally my favorite show of all time) and Watchmen (an ambitious gambit to expand upon a beloved comic series that somehow managed to delight even the most diehard fans of the original).
Today we live in a television paradise. The advent of streaming and the popularization of premium cable has ushered in a new era, where companies compete over visionaries with even moderate potential and give them complete creative freedom over their masterpieces. The virtual shelves are stocked with complex, serialized shows that drip with subtlety of storytelling and demand binge-watching (and often rewatching, after some time has passed, to squeeze out every last drop of impact), and there are far more available than I could possibly consume in my lifetime.
Nevertheless I was thrilled to see Person of Interest on Netflix, and I leapt at the chance to revisit it. And I went in expecting Westworld 1.0—and that’s how I’ve sold it to friends who haven’t seen it—but I’ve been reminded that it’s something entirely different. The themes are there, and the storytelling is as intricate as ever, but it’s undeniably a relic. Person of Interest is the best possible version of what it is: a weekly procedural that tells a compelling, dystopian sci-fi story, while tricking you into thinking you’re watching a network TV show. And I think we’ve moved past needing that.
The world has changed a lot since 2014, in many more ways than just the quality of our TV shows. Person of Interest was ahead of its time but is also a product of it, both in execution and in subject matter. It’s almost hard to relate to POI’s imagined dystopia—one where the government’s greatest evils are precipitated by its steadfast mission to protect the people, at all costs—when in reality we got the raw end of both deals: we’re spied on mainly for profit, and the people in power routinely prioritize their own interests and seem incapable of adequately protecting us.
And so my experience rewatching the show has been bittersweet. It’s a sobering reminder of a time when the world felt under control (maybe not by a massive supercomputer, but at least by intelligent people who cared deeply), and the realities of its initial format highlight the sometimes-awkward contrivances that were necessary to support it. I will always regard the show highly, and I’m looking forward to finishing my rewatch, but it’s not quite the same—nothing is.
So, should you watch Person of Interest?
If you ever enjoyed weekly procedurals (think House, Criminal Minds) or shows that pushed the limits of their format (think Batman: The Animated Series, The X-Files), you may well love Person of Interest, because it’s the pinnacle of the art form. If your enjoyment in TV is rooted in today’s modern serialized stories, ripe for binge-watching, it may not be for you. If you do decide to watch it, I’d suggest taking your time. Throw on an episode here and there when you feel like it; don’t try to power through it like you would Game of Thrones. It was designed, meticulously, as a weekly window into a world that grows and changes along with you; if you go too fast, the long-term conflicts resolve too quickly and lose their impact.
If any of that sounds good, I wholeheartedly recommend it. But do yourself a favor and live in it for a while.