• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Person of Interest review

The new crime drama starring Lost's Michael Emerson has a knowingly silly premise, says Sarah Barnett.

Fighting crime on a Monday night. It would be exhausting if it weren’t so ridiculous. Criminal Minds hasn’t been the same since I read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on the men who founded criminal profiling as a “science” – he revealed it to be little more than the trickery used by any halfway decent psychic. So, Criminal Minds is really just Sensing Murder with better actors.

At least Person of Interest, which screens afterwards, has a premise that’s both intriguing and knowingly silly – and one of the best odd couples on TV since the last season of Dancing with the Stars.

Michael Emerson, as the mysterious billionaire Mr Finch, was Lost’s Ben Linus. As that show’s keeper of the mysterious island, he was brilliant – Emerson delivers the most banal of lines with a menacing sense of humour, and menacing lines as though they are barely of consequence. His crime-fighting buddy here is Jim Caviezel, who was Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. In Person of Interest, he’s got the same hollow cheekbones and haunted eyes, but he loses the beard a few minutes in, after single-handedly taking out a gang of gunrunning thugs on the subway.

They are both Men with a Past, but – saints be praised – Mr Finch is straight-up about his involvement: you can see the relief of actually getting to explain something written all over Emerson’s face. Unless that was just the projection of a one-time Lost junkie. Finch is a billionaire computer genius whom the US Government hired, post-9/11, to build a machine that would monitor every person everywhere they went to detect budding terrorist acts. Before he faked his own death, he built a “back door” into the machine, so that while the Government was getting all the terrorist-related information, Finch would get a heads-up on those crimes that weren’t a matter of national security.

Trouble is, the only piece of info he gets is a social security number. No hint as to whether that person’s the good guy or the bad guy, or what’s going to happen or when. For a billionaire computer genius, he builds crappy back doors. But no matter. The fun of it is not that it makes sense, but that it preys so successfully on the twin modern concerns of personal privacy versus security. Big Brother is watching, but doesn’t really give a damn about you.

Caviezel, as Reese, is a former Special Forces Ranger whom Finch hires to track down the folk attached to the social security numbers and avert whatever bad thing is about to happen. As a Man with a Mysterious Past, he has a habit of saying things that sound sage, but are actually patent nonsense – to a cop, questioning him about that gang of gunrunners: “Seems like the only time you need a name now is when you’re in trouble.”

The show was created by Jonathan Nolan, Oscar nominee for Memento and author of the screenplays for The Prestige and Batman flicks The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (which is out later this year). It’s surely no coincidence that Caviezel bears a strong resemblance to Dark Knight’s Christian Bale – there’s a dark paranoid vibe to Person of Interest that reeks of Gotham City, although instead of a bat signal in the sky, it’s CCTV footage of every square inch of the city, and listening devices on every cell tower.

The first social security number led them down a rabbit hole of bent cops and a corrupt district attorney: New York obviously needs them, and the cellphone signal is everywhere.

In Ferndale, the cops aren’t so much bent as they are useless. In 20 years of Shortland Street, have they ever not bungled an investigation? From letting a serial killer get away to not believing Maia’s confessed murder, Ferndale’s finest have never been portrayed at their best.

So it was something of a miracle, as Shortie returned from the summer break with P-head Hunter McKay crouched in a ransacked pharmacy over two dying mates, that the cops didn’t believe his story. But even when they’re getting it right, there’s something about them that rubs the viewer up the wrong way. Sometime in the past 20 years, some Shortie exec has had a bad police experience – it’s the only logical explanation for it. As one of the policemen grilled Hunter about his role in the robbery, we couldn’t help but think the drug-addled idiot may have been responsible for at least one death, but the cop didn’t have to be a dick about it. And then, naturally, they let McKay get away again. Maybe Ferndale needs its own billionaire computer genius.

PERSON OF INTEREST, TV1, Monday, 8.30pm. SHORTLAND STREET, TV2, weeknights, 7.00pm