Saturday, August 20, 2016

"Person of Interest," Year Five

Spoilers for the entire series ahead.

I don't know if it's because I've been watching better shows, or if "Person of Interest" has slipped so much in quality, but its final season felt awfully dumbed down compared to previous years. The bits of exposition to help catch audiences up with the plot never felt more blatant or clumsy. I wasn't even bingeing episodes, and the hand-holding was obvious. And for a show that used to be so good about bending and evolving its formula, it was disappointing to find that much of the writing has gotten positively formulaic - Reese's deadpan quipping, Fusco's bluster, and Root's thinly disguised flirting. There were some bits of plotting that felt positively sloppy - the repeated emphasis on the simulated battles between the Machine and Samaritan really didn't lead to anything, for instance.

Or maybe it's the portrayal of the Machine. I've read several opinion pieces praising the lack of humanization of the A.I. in "Person of Interest." That all went out the window at the end of last year, when the Machine started communicating directly with its assets, and in increasingly emotional terms. This year, adopting Root's voice and much of her persona, it became practically human. Or maybe it was simply that the format of the show changed again, leaving aside all the government conspiracy and local organized crime storylines to focus on the final battles between the weakened Machine and the oppressive Samaritan. The Machine had to become more vulnerable in order for the potential loss of it to feel greater. Maybe I just wanted an ending with more finality than the one we got, which felt more like the end of a season and storyline rather than the end of the whole series. Even with the multiple deaths. Note that we've seen multiple fake-outs too recently for the resurrection of Reese not to be an option.

I liked individual episodes and individual performances though. Shaw's time in the Samaritan simulations was a highlight. So was Finch's solo mission to acquire the Ice-9 virus, holding existential conversations with the Machine on the side. He's still my favorite character, and his happy ending was the only part of the finale I really liked. It was a relief when Lionel finally got full Team Machine status at long last, but there wasn't enough time to indulge in the full comic potential of the idea. There wasn't time for a lot of things this year, with the shortened episode order. So many developments felt hurried. After all the dramatics around the capture of Shaw last year, the deaths of Root, Greer, and Elias felt positively brisk. The biggest victim was the season's only new villain, a Samaritan recruit named Jeff Blackwell (Joshua Close) whose loyalties are ambiguous, but not for long. I also can't help wishing we'd seen more old faces. It was great checking in with Zoe and Control last year, and I still can't help wondering whatever became of Leon.

As a fan of hard science-fiction and cyberpunk, I'm still happy with the show overall, but felt it made too many concession to the mainstream CBS audience in the end. Sure, they killed off some major characters, but once the stakes started being more about the survival of Team Machine and less about the frightening Samaritan takeover the planet that was so nicely set up last year, it lost a lot of teeth. We never did find out the extent of Samaritan's plans beyond sinister mentions of "sorting," and that's a shame. It's little boy avatar didn't appear at all. And frankly, the final showdown turned out to be a series of awfully simple action beats with very little time devoted to the larger questions about AI, privacy, security, and morality that were always the best part of the show. "Person of Interest" was excellent when in was operating in the gray areas, but everything in the finale was starkly black and white. The answers that were given felt too easy, and in some cases unearned.

I wanted too much, I suppose. Truthfully, it was a miracle that "Person of Interest" ever made it to air on a major network, or lasted as long as it has, while maintaining its high quality almost all the way to the end. The fifth season was problematic, but it was a decent enough conclusion - especially in light of the non-endings that crime procedurals usually get. The show introduced me to so much good talent, and had some of the best characters I've ever seen in this kind of show. Root and Finch are going to stay with me for a long time. I guess all I can do is look ahead to "Westworld," where a good chunk of the creative team seems to be headed. And prep my top ten list for "Person of Interest," which you should be seeing next month.

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