Apparently, “Persons of Interest” Aren’t Women

I’m not one to turn down a new crime show. Give me a detective, a forensic team or a vigilante out for the truth and I’m pretty much a happy camper. So I was expecting to enjoy the new CBS procedural “Person of Interest” (premiering tonight at 9/8 central), particularly since it’s the brainchild of “Lost” producer J.J. Abrams and Dark Knight/Memento screenwriter Jonathan Nolan. Unfortunately, after watching the pilot I’m feeling robbed–and not in the good way that’s followed by philosophical one-liners from street-hardened detectives.

First off, what could have been an interesting meditation on surveillance culture suffers from heavy-handedness and an out-there premise. The show hits viewers over the head with dozens of clips of gritty security camera footage, allusions to September 11, and images of cameras peering menacingly with their glowing viewfinders, like 2001‘s Hal, from every lamppost and stoplight. Instead of a subtle questioning of our Big Brother society, which might be interesting, the show goes with a convoluted sci-fi premise: A computer program gathers information from all this surveillance and predicts which members of the public will be involved in a crime. Yet this sophisticated program cannot tell whether they will be victims or perpetrators, or where, what, when and how the crime will occur, giving our team of human protagonists their mission–to figure it all out and stop the crimes before they are committed. As a premise this makes about as much sense as that 2008 Angelina Jolie film Wanted, in which a band of weaver-assassins receive instructions about who to kill from a mysterious loom.

At least Wanted had a woman lead (even if the film itself was a flimsy excuse to show two physics-defying fantasies–a naked Jolie and curving bullets). Both “Person of Interest” leads are men: There’s Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson, best known as Ben Linus from Lost), the man who designed the premonitory algorithm for the government but now secretly uses it in his own private lab/office to track down potential victims and murderers. More of an “idea man,” Finch hires former CIA agent John Reese (James Caviezel, The Prisoner) to actually do the creepy stalking and surveillance necessary to either stop or protect the “person of interest,” whose social security number is spit out by the computer.

As for female characters, the options are fairly limited. We have Reese’s half-naked, now-dead girlfriend, whom we’ll probably never see again outside of flashbacks meant to build Reese’s character. There’s the person of interest for the episode; another one-off, she’s an assistant attorney whom Reese presumes will be the victim of a crime until–an unexpected twist happens! Lastly, there’s a woman detective who interviews Reese at the beginning of the show after he beats up some gang members on the subway who attempt to rob him. According to the show’s website, Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson) is a series regular, but her character is so one-dimensional that even the show forgets about her, introducing her in the first five minutes and then only bringing her back for two brief blips.

For me, a show with no notable female cast members is a big turn-off. But my problem with “Person of Interest” runs deeper. Not only are the male leads vacant and the female characters tangential, but the male characters occupy obnoxious, macho cliches: the hacker and the ex-soldier. Finch and Reese patronizingly believe that they can save the world through a combination of voyeurism, preternatural cleverness and brute strength.

All that might be bearable if the acting were at least mildly interesting, but I haven’t seen such stilted acting on a television show in a long time. Emerson plays his character as though they’d just rigged the algorithm-generating computer to talk for itself. Reese is supposed to be a mysterious heartthrob, a 21st century Richard Kimble seeking vengeance for some unknown injustice, but he just comes off as a run-of-the-mill action hero.

Who knows, Person of Interest” may become a glowing, international success, hailed as the most brilliantly complex thing to hit television since, well, “Lost.” I’ve certainly stopped trying to second-guess the topsy-turvy whims of the television industry and its viewers. And pilot episodes are a funny lot–some clever pilots have led to loathsome shows, and some stilted and stumbling pilots have heralded hidden genius.

Whether or not “Person of Interest” garners acclaim and loyal viewers, I do think it’s treading dangerous waters in a post-9/11 world. After all, the show suggests that 24/7 surveillance can serve some greater good and that the possibility of future crime justifies preemptive violence. Haven’t we heard that line somewhere before?

Poster from CBS’s “Person of Interest,” premiering tonight at 9pm.


Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.