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OPINION: How Person of Interest Did The 20+ Episode Season Right


Disclaimer: Please note that the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpoilerTV.

In a world where Peak TV is moving away from the 20+ episode structure (no streaming service has a drama show run this many episodes in a season without a long break inbetween and for a reason, and network shows are getting shorter and shorter), network TV increasingly struggles to maintain the success of 20+ episode seasons when the series gets to around seasons three or four. It can be a difficult number to pull off to get that balance between standalone episodes and the ongoing narrative right with "three/four" season curses often being the norm for some shows. It can work for comedy, you need only look at shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore as great examples of this but in dramas it’s a different matter entirely, often hard to get the balance of a 20+ episode season right, and make it interesting and exciting for up to five seasons and occasionally higher - with very few exceptions, avoiding the third or fourth season curses that have struck over and over again. Outside of Person of Interest – there are few shows in recent years that have kept up that quality for such a long time, and although its fifth season had a shortened episode count leading up to the finale clocking in at under 20 episodes, its previous four seasons ran for 20+ episodes, and aside from a fairly average start in the first half of season one (but still with it's fair share of excellent episodes), it quickly progressed into becoming appointment television and at its best, rivalled most awards-favoured television, with seasons equalling if not bettering shows like Breaking Bad.

The concept is a simple one, for those unfamiliar with the series itself. You have a former CIA Agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) working as a vigilante in New York City with Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) to stop crime before it happens with the help of an artificial intelligence that will tell them that their target – their ‘person of interest’ is about to be involved in a crime but it will not tell them whether it’s the victim or the perpetrator. Most of the episodes have a procedural feel to them, with Reese and Finch working together to asses whether the party under investigation is innocent or guilty, initially avoiding the efforts of Detective Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson) who is assigned with deducing the identity of the Man in the Suit and later becomes an ally to "Team Machine", who are also joined by a former corrupt cop who has one of the best redemption arcs on TV, Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman). If any of this sounds familiar, then chances are it’s because it does – the show is essentially the closest we’ll get to a realistic Batman television show (comparisons not helped by Dark Knight trilogy co-writer Jonathan Nolan acting as the showrunner), with Carter and Fusco doubling for James Gordon and Harvey Bullock and Reese and Finch acting as Batman/Alfred Pennyworth. They even have a Joker-type antagonist/protagonist in the form of Amy Acker’s Root, who remains one of the more compelling characters on the show, initially brought in as an antagonist before evolving along with the show itself and serves as a good example of how late-game character introductions can really help a show.

The main question in this article then, is how did Person of Interest avoid becoming stale and tiresome? It was pretty much the perfect definition of a show that got better and better every season, evolving beyond just Finch and Reese not only introducing new characters but also fleshing out old ones. The small cast grew – eventually former elite government operative Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi) joined the team in Season 2 in one of the show’s best episodes “Relevance” (2.16), which acted as a kind of stealth-backdoor pilot for a show that never happened and works as a better pilot than the actual pilot, without the shakiness that most pilots have. For anyone looking to watch the show who missed out on it when it aired, I’d point them to this episode as a good starting point and have sold a few friends on it by this episode alone before. Shaw and Reese act the proto-John Wicks before John Wick was a thing, and the amount of people who they manage to dispatch - without killing - over the course of the series rivals Wick’s bodycount. A crossover would be a dream.

The series tackled complex themes like police corruption and the dangers of artificial intelligence. It split its two plot threads in half nicely, sometimes overlapping them – you’d get a portion of the seasons devoted to dealing with the sinister corrupt organisation HR and a portion of a season developed to the rapidly growing AI plot, at least until its later stages, where escalation eventually leads to a rival AI being brought into the equation, that isn’t as friendly as The Machine - the name given to the one that helps Finch and Reese. It’s Control, and it’s spearheaded by one of the most formidable TV villains ever – John Greer (John Nolan - Jonathan Nolan is his nephew). Greer started out as an MI5 Agent and acts as a perfect foil to Finch, the Magneto to his Charles Xavier. Part of what helped this show so much was that the writers were a firm believer in that a hero is only as good as their villains, and boy did they up their game for the rogue’s gallery that allowed for plenty genre transitions to keep the audience on their toes. We had an intelligent mob boss Carl Elias (Enrico Colantoni), who posed as a teacher to influence the kids of his rivals – introduced in 1.7 (“Witness”) – making his arrival to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman – Peter Collier (Leslie Odom Jr), a leader of an organisation of revolutionaries known as Vigilance, the CIA itself, personified by Reese’s former partner Mark Snow (Michael Kelly) and of course, HR – an organisation with as many heads as HYDRA counting Alonzo Quinn (Clarke Peters) and Patrick Simmons (Robert John Burke) among its members. On top of this you also had the case of the week antagonists, who were most of the time compelling, with the show not afraid to pull a massive twist at the end revealing that the person who they were helping was actually the villain all along, and the team had gotten their numbers mixed up. It often led to some of the best episodes of the show.

Person of Interest balanced its rich rogues gallery with careful character development. Finch and Reese were fleshed out through specific character-centric episodes that turned them into really developed characters. There wasn’t a single main character in this show that was boring, with Carter and Fusco’s arcs being just as engaging. This was in part due to the actors – Taraji P. Henson would go on to lead FOX’s Empire after this series and it’s easy to see why she was cast in that role, as someone who was utterly compelling in Person of Interest, whether she’s tracking down The Man in the Suit or leading a one-woman-war against HR. The pairing of Root and Shaw was one of the series’ highest points making use of the chemistry that Shahi and Acker shared, and by spending time with the characters as well as the story itself, Person of Interest did what few network shows manage to do – it made you care, even at its most mundane, CBS-mandated procedural episodes that don’t connect to the plot at all. Although that’s not to say that Person of Interest didn’t try to weave in some sort of connection to the plot especially in later seasons where it felt almost serialised. The final season does feel rushed at times, mainly due to the fact that CBS cancelled it – but the network at least thankfully had the foresight to give the writers time to plan for a proper, emotionally charged ending befitting of the characters.

The complex themes that Person of Interest dealt with were often cutting edge – it predicted Edward Snowden, all before Captain America: The Winter Soldier had HYDRA try to launch Zola’s Algorithm and James Bond copied it in Spectre. Its handling of police corruption was thrilling and the way it mixed in with the feeling of the government always watching made it paranoia-inducing television. The soundtrack helped too, with a mix of the classics like Johnny Cash’s Hurt, David Bowie’s I’m Afraid of Americans, Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine and The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter being used to punctuate key scenes along with a healthy dose of bands like The Kills featuring (both Future Starts Slow and No Wow) and everyone from DJ Shadow to Radiohead, The Who and Jetta. But the original score was possibly even better – helped by the legendary Game of Thrones composer Ramin Dijawadi – and it really gave it a cutting edge feel and is a subject for another article entirely. Only Peaky Blinders can match Person of Interest in terms of song choices, but Person of Interest has that added diversity that isn’t just predominately Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and The White Stripes.

Whether Person of Interest is paying homage to the gangster thrillers like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed or weaving its own, original storyline – it remained utterly riveting television, a feat made all the more impressive given its CBS home. There was always a subplot within a subplot to keep audiences hooked, and the occasional usage of flashback-heavy episodes that dealt into the origin of the Machine made sure that the show always had something to offer. By not resorting to just standard case of the week episodes and avoiding keeping the best material for the finale of each season but upping its game there anyway, Person of Interest ensured that its respective seasons had plenty of consistency throughout, and not only that, it rectified its mistakes as it went on, learning from what worked and what didn’t as it continuously evolved. If you haven’t seen Person of Interest yet it’s a gem that deserves to be considered among TV's top tier, capable of pulling its punches with the best of them, making a case as to why a 20+ episode season can be just as gripping as seasons with a shorter episode count without having to lose that consistency as the show gets older.


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