I watched the “Person of Interest” pilot last night, and was not very impressed. There were a couple of things I liked about it in theory: the small cast, and the decision to give away more information than these shows usually do. (There will be ongoing mysteries, presumably, but it wouldn’t work if they tried to make a big mystery out of how Michael Emerson’s character is getting his information. A show whose plots are based on rules needs to explain those rules up-front.) And it does seem like a somewhat personal project for Jonathan Nolan: as his brother’s co-writer on “The Dark Knight,” he dealt in a symbolic way with the ramifications of the post-9/11 surveillance state, and he’s now dealing with these issues more directly in his own project.
But for its strengths, “The Dark Knight” was not known for great dialogue, and “Person of Interest” carries on that Nolan tradition: much of the dialogue is flat and without personality. And there’s almost no humour in the whole hour. I’m not saying that every show needs to be funny, but some kind of light touch does help to sell a crazy premise. (I’ve been on this before, but shows like “Breaking Bad” or “Buffy” use humour to signal that the writers are not unaware of how absurd the premise is – and that frees us up to take the serious parts seriously. “Person of Interest” acts like every single moment could be part of a realistic crime drama.) As it is, you could imagine what a Stephen J. Cannell type of approach might have done for this show and this lead character in particular. He’s a dour, charmless stick most of the time, which is a problem, because the guy who investigates the crimes does need to have some social skills of some kind. If he spends all his time spying on people and occasionally beating them up, it gets dull. But it’s hard to imagine Jim Caviezel charming people, assuming disguises, or just generally doing anything that requires some sense of fun on the part of the character.
Another thing: this is, in conception, basically a two-character show, but the two characters have no real tension. They are established by the end of the episode as basically the same in everything that matters. They don’t argue much, they don’t clash, they have similarly quiet and reserved personalities. They might be able to gin up some conflict over moral issues or whether this week’s Person is a potential victim or killer. But people don’t watch these shows for the mysteries, they watch them for the characters, and this is an odd-couple show that seems to be smoothing out the differences between the couple. It’s like if Mulder and Scully were different ages, but both of them pretty much agreed about the supernatural. Or if Hardcastle and McCormick (one of two superior shows of which PoI is most reminiscent, the other being “Checkmate”) didn’t yell at each other. (I should note that the “Hardscastle” pilot, being a stronger piece of dramatic construction than this one, took the step of forcing the young hero, on the threat of jail, to help the old guy. The young hero of course wound up liking it and liking the old guy, but he didn’t just nod and brood and start investigating crimes because some old man made speeches at him.) These people are far too compatible. This is one reason why – unless a considerable amount of re-tooling of the characters goes on – I don’t see how more emphasis on the mythology could help that much. Mythology is interesting insofar as it provokes different reactions from distinctly different characters. Here we have two men who, like the Knight Rider guy, “do not exist” and whose motivations are pretty similar. You could practically flip a coin to decide which one will have doubts about all this power and which one will go all power-mad.
If we can’t get tension and fun from the interaction of the two main characters, maybe we can get it from the people they investigate. But this is doubtful. And not just because this isn’t a big strength of J.J. Abrams productions. The idea that the people of interest could be killers or victims – that they could be bad or good guys – plunks us right into the middle of the standard problem of any regular mystery: the person has to spend a large portion of the story seeming plausible as either a good or bad guy. It’s hard to get very interested in a guest character when you don’t have enough reliable information about them. I know the format of the traditional vigilante-justice show (and how strange it is to describe such a thing as “traditional”) got played out: we saw the bad guys terrorizing the good-guy guest characters until the hero stepped in to help. But it seems like in trying to avoid that, and create a sense of moral ambiguity, Person of Interest is just going to wind up being another one of those shows that offers ill-defined guests. And if the Person of Interest is not interesting, that’s a much bigger problem than not having enough mythology.
Probably I’m coming perilously close to the old familiar mistake of asking a show to be something other than it is: Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams, two guys who take their stories very seriously, are not going to suddenly turn into another type of writer and fill the show with funny dialogue and cool cars. They want to do a serious show about the post-9/11 era; you either take it seriously or (like me) you can’t take it seriously and stop watching. But on its own terms, I don’t really see how this show can spin off interesting stories on a regular basis.