Best TV of the Decade, No. 20: “Person of Interest”

20 PersonofInt

Perhaps no decade has seen as radical a shift in the world of television – what it is, what it can be, how we watch it – as the 2010s. Back in 2009, cable was booming, thanks to networks like HBO, AMC, FX, and Showtime, and TV at large produced about 200 shows per year. Networks retained fairly rigid annual schedules, even for shows that opted for the compact 13-episode format. Netflix had only begun to include “streaming” as an option, and was still primarily seen as a DVD-by-mail service.

Ten years later, streaming TV has exploded. Netflix shows frequently dominate the conversation, with outlets like Amazon Prime, Hulu, CBS All-Access and Disney Plus each vying for a slice of the action. TV shows can go on hiatus for two years or more, free of the typical network constraints (and even episode counts) of previous years. And the number of shows produced each year now tops out around 500.

Perhaps it wasn’t the decade of the best TV (the 2000s may have had higher peaks), but it was certainly the one with the most TV, and plenty of the shows it produced were pretty spectacular. As is custom, I’m ready to discuss my picks for the Best Shows of the Decade. But because decade endings are a pretty rare occurrence (this is only the third one I’m living through myself), it calls for something more special and extravagant. Which is why I’m launching my largest monthlong project since I first began online writing.

Over the entire month of December – five days a week, across four weeks – I will be going through my Top 20 TV Shows of the Decade, one by one. Each show will get its own article, where I discuss its merits and place on the list. By the end of the month, I will have discussed a lot of great television, and I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

A few ground rules: I’m only judging shows based on their output in the current decade (i.e. seasons and episodes aired from 2010 onwards). I’m not including miniseries, which despite their developmental growth, aren’t quite the same category as ongoing TV (limited series – shows that air multiple seasons with different casts and storylines – are fair game, though). And I’m mostly sticking to American shows, though you may see an imported series or two that’s been acquired by an American outlet.

With that out of the way, let’s jump right in. We start with my pick for the 20th-best TV show of the decade…


 

It’s been a while, but there was a time when JJ Abrams’ name was synonymous with TV gold.

This is despite the fact that, on closer inspection, Abrams hasn’t technically “created” a whole lot of TV. He had his boom at the turn of the century with Felicity and Alias, two shows he worked extensively on in their early years. But though he left his indelible thumbprint on the Lost pilot (and a few subsequent Season One episodes), that show quickly became the darling of Damon Lindelof and his Nash Bridges cowriter Carlton Cuse.

Though he began ceding his TV ground to others in order to devote time to films like Mission Impossible III and Star Trek (and, eventually, the bookends of the new Star Wars trilogy), Abrams still had his name attached to many of the more experimental network dramas of the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, including cult hits like Fringe and forgotten series like Alcatraz and Undercovers. But perhaps the most peculiar show of the era to bill him in the executive producer role was CBS’ Person of Interest.

Created by Jonathan Nolan (best known at the time as Christopher’s little brother), the series starred Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson as a pair of freelance do-gooders, surveilling New York City and attempting to prevent crimes before they happen, with the help of an advanced government AI referred to as “the Machine.” The show also starred Taraji P. Henson (who had earned recognition for her Oscar-nominated role in Benjamin Button but hadn’t yet broken out with Empire) as a police detective trying to track down the vigilantes, and character actor Kevin Chapman as a hapless detective caught between the law and the Machine.

I watched the pilot episode when it premiered in 2011 and was plainly underwhelmed – the show seemed like another formulaic CSI clone, and Caviezel’s performance made David Duchovny look caffeinated. (Besides, the show’s schedule conflicted with Bones, a show I didn’t watch but which had DVR preference at my house.) I stopped watching quickly and didn’t think to look back.

But time passed. Somewhere around the third season, buzz began to reach my ears. Apparently, Person of Interest had changed. It had grown. It had become more sci-fi than police procedural, with complex arcs and detailed themes about government surveillance in the 21st century.

Intrigued, I started the show up again. The transition was slow – Season One fought to break free of the procedural element, only rarely producing a great episode. But the series began to evolve. Midway through Season Two, the larger story began to come into play. The addition of characters like Root (Amy Acker) and Shaw (Sarah Shahi) helped the series expand its scope, and new recurring characters (played by such game actors as John Doman, Camryn Mannheim, and Enrico Colantoni) deepened the show’s world and drama.

Though it stuck to the typical network structure of airing 22-23 episodes a season (only resorting to 13 episodes in its fifth and final year), Person of Interest proved remarkably adept at maintaining suspense. The best example of this is likely Season Three, which features two excellent consecutive runs: the battle against HR corruption in the NYPD (climaxing in “The Devil’s Share,” perhaps the show’s most thrilling episode), and the rise of the government-run Samaritan. The season wove standalone stories into the larger arc, creating some of the most entertaining and bingeable television of the decade.

Not that Season Four was any slouch. It featured the terrific Decima arc, and plenty of excellent individual episodes – none more memorable than “If-Then-Else,” perhaps the most ingenious and down-to-earth riff on Groundhog Day ever devised for television.

Although the third and fourth seasons received critical acclaim, accolades did not translate to viewership. The show’s ratings declined, underscoring that it was perhaps not a great fit for the network of NCIS and The Big Bang Theory. In addition to shortening Season Five to a cable-sized 13 episodes, CBS aired it in just a few short weeks in the early summer of 2016, scuttling any chances of it going out with a Nielsen bang. (The first three seasons each averaged over 14 million viewers; the fifth season barely scrounged up over 6 million.) But the writers sent the show out on a high note, wrapping up the series with a memorable run that demonstrated just how much the show had evolved from its earliest days.

In the years since PoI has ended, Jonathan Nolan (along with his wife, Lisa Joy) have gone on to create HBO’s Westworld, one of the most expensive and intricate shows ever made. Now equipped with a massive budget and no network restrictions, Nolan and co. are free to write stories as complex and serialized as they want. The vague of the network drama was already ending at the time Person of Interest premiered; these days, there’s almost no reason for creative minds to stick with the broadcasters.

But if network dramas are on their way out, at least Person of Interest was a lyric in their swansong. It took some time to grow, but at its best, it could be as riveting as anything that cable or streaming gave us at the time.

Not bad for a JJ Abrams afterthought.

Tune in tomorrow for the 19th best show of the decade, which proved that cowboy hats are still cool if a certain someone is wearing them.

6 thoughts on “Best TV of the Decade, No. 20: “Person of Interest””

  1. I think Person of Interest may have become the greatest victim of the Peak TV era. If it had started airing even 2 or 3 years previous, I think it would have really caught on more. Unfortunately, it started slowly and by the time it was really getting the recognition, there was already a backlog of 30 episodes. For someone like me who watches too much TV as it is, that’s a lot to get through just to get to the good stuff. That’s especially considering I had highly anticipated this show premiering and after 6 or 7 unimpressive episodes, I had already given it a try and given up.

    So sadly I never got around to this one and never will. That being said, I’m glad so many people stuck with it and found as great of enjoyment in it as they did.

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    1. Yep. These days, it’s incredibly important for a show to start off with a bang. Person of Interest takes about 30-40 episodes to really build up steam. Had it started off with S3-level quality, I probably would have ranked it higher.

      That said, if you ever do want to see what the fuss is about, Matt Fowler has an excellent skip/watch guide for the first four seasons (especially helpful for the first two). You can avoid a few dozen standalones and get to the good stuff much faster.

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  2. I love this show a lot, and re-watched it fairly recently. Here are my (very extended) thoughts. I feel justified (heh heh) in this since I didn’t watch it in time to discuss things like seasons ranked, favorite episodes, etc. with you and Stake on the original forum.

    -Season 1 is better than it’s given credit for. It’s far from a disaster. I’d even say the majority of episodes are good-to-great (1×04, 1×07, 1×09-1×11, 1×13-1×15, 1×19-1×23). Some of the episodes were very dull (“Risk”, “Foe”, “Judgement”), but the good outweighed the bad for sure. In addition, a lot of the credit for the great show POI became can be traced back to the character development and world-building done in this season. It’s the fact that the first batch of episodes are generally the weakest of the whole series, which may wear out some viewers’ patience. There were a lot of articles and comments back in the day noting how shocking it was that an OK show became great, but looking back, it’s not so shocking.

    -Season 2 drags its feet big time in its first half, but its second half is one of the strongest stretches in the whole run. Some of the very best POI episodes are in this season, brushing up against competent-but-dull outings like “Triggerman.” It’s an odd viewing experience. In general though, the stellar back half left me very positive about this season as a whole. It’s great stuff.

    -Season 3 is basically a perfect season of network tv, or tv in general. Its worst episode, “Provenance” is still passable and does not contain any long-term issues that plague the series. It’s just a bit disposable. The best episodes of this season are too numerous to count. This season cemented Person of Interest as an all-timer.

    -Season 4 was significantly better than I remembered, in both halves. They are both really strong stretches. The second half received a lot of criticism at the time, but in hindsight, it’s really not too bad. The season rebounds big time with its final four episodes. “Terra Incognita” had the person who was watching it with me crying buckets-and this is a person who wouldn’t stop complaining to me for the first couple seasons how boring John Reese was (“Many Happy Returns” is a masterpiece and I doubt I’ll be convinced otherwise). This one was so well written and acted.

    -Season 5 is awesome due to how weird it is. There’s lots of quirky humor, out-there numbers, and yet they don’t detract from the drama. Basically the definition of how to serialize a procedural. The final two episodes made a very nice two-parter, and were a spectacular way to close out the series.

    -Elias’ story was one of the best mob stories ever. His death was crushing.

    -All of the characters were well acted, but my favorites on this re-watch were Amy Acker’s Root, Michael Emerson’s Harold Finch, Sarah Shahi’s Sameen Shaw, Enrico Colantoni’s Elias, and Robert John Burke’s Patrick Simmons. No, I’m not kidding about that last one. He single handedly elevated the HR arc into something special-basically the perfect pure villain.

    -I love this show so much because of its variety. I’ve seen no other show that contains: suspense, action, humor, drama, sci-fi, philosophy, computer science, comic-book world-building, and character development so deftly. This show is like a superhero show on the CW, with better production values, actual character arcs,

    Seasons ranked: 3>5>4>2>1

    Favorite episodes, chronological order, lots of cheating:
    “Cura Te Ipsum” (1×04)
    “Witness” (1×07)
    “Super” (1×11)
    “Flesh and Blood” (1×19)
    “Many Happy Returns” (1×21)
    “No Good Deed” (1×22)
    “Firewall” (1×23)
    “The Contingency”/”Bad Code” (2×01 and 2×02)
    “Prisoner’s Dilemma”/”Dead Reckoning” (2×12 and 2×13)
    “Relevance” (2×16)
    “Zero Day”/”God Mode” (2×21 and 2×22)
    “Razgovor” (3×05)
    “Mors Praematura” (3×06)
    “Endgame”/”The Crossing”/”The Devil’s Share” (3×08, 3×09, and 3×10)
    “Lethe”/”Aletheia” (3×11 and 3×12)
    “RAM” (3×16)
    “Root Path” (3×17)
    “Death Benefit” (3×20)
    “A House Divided”/”Deus Ex Machina” (3×22 and 3×23)
    “Prophets” (4×05)
    “The Devil You Know” (4×09)
    “The Cold War”/”If-Then-Else”/”Control-Alt-Delete”/”M.I.A.” (4×10, 4×11, 4×12, and 4×13)
    “Terra Incognita” (4×20)
    “Asylum”/”YHWH” (4×21 and 4×22)
    “SNAFU” (5×02)
    “6,741” (5×04)
    “Sotto Voce” (5×09)
    “The Day the World Went Away” (5×10)
    “.exe”/”return 0” (5×12 and 5×13)

    I could have kept going, but I tried to keep the number down. I tried.

    Scott: Yeah, I agree. The show was at the top of the heap in quality, but it got buried under the deluge of quality programming that was flooding the airwaves at the time. I think it would definitely stand out more in the current barren landscape. It’s unfortunate that despite being a better overall show than many it’s placed below, it’ll basically fulfill the definition of underrated. #20 is too low for me, but it’s still very respectable considering how much tv aired in the 2010s, and better than the #73 that the AV Club placed it as.

    One last thing-Jeremy wasn’t the victim, he was the PERPETRATOR!

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    1. Wow, that’s nearly half the show in your favorite episodes list. 😉

      I agree with your season rankings, and many of those episode picks. I also think that Season One, while the weakest year, is still above-average by procedural standards. You can tell the show always wanted to be something more; it just took a while to break out of its shell.

      Maybe someday we’ll see broadcast networks attempt another 22-episodes-per-season show with this level of quality and ambition, but I grow more skeptical with every year.

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      1. The story goes that Nolan always wanted to make a show about surveillance and AI. But CBS was the only network that would take it. Some people who liked but didn’t love it said they wished it was on HBO or something, but none of them were interested. I’m sure CBS wouldn’t have been Nolan’s first choice.

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    2. I’m going to take exception to the reference of the current TV landscape being barren. I don’t think the quality is quite what it was 2-3 years ago, but there’s still plenty of really good stuff airing out there.

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