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Review: Person of Interest
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jducoeur
We finally got to the last episode of Person of Interest the other day, so it's time for an overall review of the series.

tl;dr: Person of Interest is the best science fiction TV series of recent years. You should watch it.

At this point, I hear some of you saying, "Wait -- Person of Interest? Science fiction? Isn't that a police procedural or something like that?" Books, covers, and like that -- bear with me.

The best definition I know of "science fiction" is that it is about *ideas*. Great SF takes an idea or two, asks "What if?", and runs from there, exploring the implications of that idea. It's not about spaceships and aliens -- it's about those ideas.

The core idea of PoI is that there is a Machine, a sophisticated and increasingly sentient AI that is plugged into the Internet. It sees all, knows all, and is getting ever-better at *predicting* all. You need to accept that central conceit for the series to work. It's worth suspending disbelief there: while I personally don't think it's plausible *yet* (and there are some chaos-theory reasons to believe it'll never happen to quite this degree), the story pays it off well with a fine exploration of where things could eventually go.

Our primary protagonist is Harold Finch, inventor of the Machine. He built it for the government, and the Machine is feeding the government "relevant" information -- predictions of terrorist attacks, assassinations, and other such matters of Strategic Importance.

The problem is, the Machine sees all, including the far larger number of "irrelevant" matters -- the little deaths and tragedies of ordinary life. So it begins to feed Harold hints of those tragedies, in the form of numbers that identify the relevant people. Harold is a programmer, and an injured one at that, unable to address these problems himself, so he hires Mr. Reese -- ex-military, ex-CIA, cool to the point of scary -- to look into these cases and try to save lives.

That's where the series starts, and season one *is* a something of a procedural. (I gather. I didn't come in until somewhere in the middle of season two. I recommend starting from the beginning; figuring out the moving parts in the middle isn't simple.) As the story progresses, it picks up some of the expected sorts of arc -- the government wanting more control over the Machine, Mr. Reese's past catching up with him, etc -- but it's all fairly ordinary for the first couple of seasons.

And then the network apparently stopped interfering so much, and allowed Jonathan Nolan to tell the story he *wanted* to tell. In season three, the story begins to really explore the ramifications of the scenario: the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance, and the tragedies that can happen when the eyes in the sky get it wrong. Suffice it to say, this series is a bit like Dollhouse: if you're turned off because the scenario makes you queasy, trust me, the show-runner is *way* ahead of you, and the story is *much* darker than it looks at first glance.

That begins to set up in season three; seasons four and five play it out, as we explore just how terrifying the world could be with an omniscient AI trying to save humanity from itself, especially if you get on its bad side. This is a story about a Singularity happening so quietly that almost nobody knows it's even occurring, and the small group who are trying to stop it. I found the final half-season to be utterly gripping, and the writers took the opportunity to bring it to a solid close. (They have left the door open for a possible sequel, but that will clearly be a different story, in different circumstances with different characters.) In terms of flavor, the best comparison I can make to the later seasons is the SF novel Iron Sunrise. No, I won't say why.

The cast is excellent, and it gradually extends beyond those two characters. The first couple of seasons include a pre-Empire Taraji P. Henson, and Amy Acker gets to play the role she was born for, as Root, self-proclaimed high priestess of the Machine -- a badass sociopath who gradually learns how to be human over the course of the story. The writing is solidly good, and they do a good job of varying the tone even in the grimmer later seasons. (My favorite episode is in season four -- told mainly from the viewpoint of the Machine itself, it is weirdly funny and deeply sympathetic, driving home just how differently it sees the world.)

Overall, it's well worth watching. The individual episodes stand by themselves reasonably well, but by the second half this is a strongly arc-driven story, taking its premise and exploring it richly. I find myself much more eager than I might have expected for HBO's upcoming Westworld series -- also by Jonathan Nolan, and also promising deep explorations of AI and its interactions with mankind...
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Never seen it. Sounds like a dark mirror image of Robert W. Sawyer's WWW trilogy.

The one thing I will add to this is that often I see reviews of series that people urge me to watch and I don't want to watch another important series that takes far too much brain at the end of the day. PoI is solidly enjoyable and followable even when tired, so functions on both levels, as a procedural and excellent fiction.

First, I still haven't seen the final episode. Basically, there's a friend who records a lot of SF shows for us and then she and my wife and myself binge watch when our schedules coincide. Currently our schedules won't match again until after Pennsic.

That being said, I agree with your review of the show.

I recently read an article about a major city that used an AI program to predict known criminals involved shootings over a holiday weekend. (I want to say Chicago and Memorial Day, I'll have to find it.) Of the 65 shootings that weekend, 50 of them involved people on their list. I'd be more impressed if they mentioned how long their list was. 50 out of 75 is impressive, 50 out of 1,000 is not.

In an interview with the producers, they said they meant the show to be SF when they started. 5 years in computer technology is like 50 years in any other field.

Wow, that sounds way more interesting than I would have guessed from previews and things.

Yeah, this one's been flying under the radar in the geek community because it looks so utterly *not* genre. But as it goes, the SF takes center stage.

Which goes to illustrate the core point, that powerful AI doesn't necessarily *look* like science fiction, while still having profound consequences...

I found PoI while I was recovering from surgery and fell in love. I watched the final half season in real time and it broke me in some wonderful ways.

I just proposed an Arisia panel on it. With its demise, I don't think there's a single sci-fi show on any major network.

I think you're right. There's a lot of good stuff out there (Mr. Robot, The Expanse, and I hope to Westworld coming up falls into that category), but none of it on the classic major networks.

I started the show based on an earlier recommendation of yours, and finished the last episode shortly after it aired. I enthusiastically second your recommendation. It's a nice example of near-future sci-fi, that explores the dark themes of our current state of technology, without demonizing it inherently.

I started watching this show based on a recommendation (maybe yours?), and started from the beginning via Netflix and then switched to TV when I'd caught up. I've described the show to others as "near-future speculative fiction". It was pretty good at the start, and very good once the real story started to come out.

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