With many of this season’s new shows that seem to squander a lot of talent and/or an interesting premise, it’s hard to know where to start in figuring out how to fix them. With CBS’ new vigilante drama “Person of Interest” (which debuts tomorrow night at 9), the solution is simple:
Someone needs to buy star Jim Caviezel an alarm clock, or find some other way to wake him up.
In “Person of Interest,” Caviezel plays Reese, former elite Special Forces operative who’s lost his faith, soul and reason to live, thanks to a mystery trauma we’ll get the full details on later. He’s become one of those disturbing, borderline-catatonic homeless people you sometimes see riding the subway, but all his skills are intact – as a bunch of Russian-American mobsters find out when they try to hassle him on the train.
Reese’s attack on the local criminal talent brings him to the attention of the mysterious Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson), a reclusive, impossibly wealthy man who helped the government build a machine that – by turning every video camera, cell phone and other audio or visual signal in our lives, into a giant spy network – could predict crimes before they happen. In the wake of 9/11, the machine was designed to predict terrorist attacks, but Finch has a backdoor into the system that allows him to learn about people who may be involved in smaller-scale crimes. Because he’s hacking in, the system gives him only Social Security numbers rather than names(*), and can’t tell him whether the people in question will be the victims or perpetrators of a crime, but it’s a starting point for him to get proactive on crime.
(*) Both of the machine’s limitations seem a bit silly, but at least the latter helps generate suspense: is the person of interest a good guy or a bad guy?. The pilot, at least, doesn’t suggest that Finch has any trouble getting a name once he has the SS# in hand.
“So many crimes are planned days, weeks in advance,” he tells Reese. “What if you could stop those?”
It’s an appealing idea, if not a revolutionary one. “Person of Interest” is essentially “The Equalizer” by way of the sequence in “The Dark Knight” – which was co-written by this series’ creator, Jonathan Nolan – where Batman hacks every cell phone in Gotham to create his own surveillance network. With Emerson playing a more benevolent version of his Ben Linus character from “Lost,” and good use of the New York location and its omnipresent cameras and phones, there’s a potentially good show here.
The problem is that Caviezel seems barely awake, well after Reese shaves off his hobo beard and starts working with Finch to administer some unofficial justice. He delivers every line in the same affect-less whisper, and whether he’s doing a poor Clint Eastwood impression or trying to portray his character’s emotionally anesthetized state, the performance is a black hole, sucking in all the entertainment value and crushing it into tiny atom-sized particles.
There are several scenes in the pilot where Reese is carving his way through opponents, each ending with an action kiss-off line that’s designed to generate a laugh or a feeling of triumph. And if Caviezel gave the lines even the slightest hint of energy, they would. But what he and/or the producers might view as nihilistic cool instead comes across like an actor phoning it in.
There’s also a subplot involving Taraji P. Henson as an NYPD detective looking into whatever Reese is up to. It’s unclear whether her character will spend the series trying and failing to catch these pesky vigilantes, or if she’s destined to join the team within a few episodes. Whatever the plan is, I hope it’s something that gets her front and center quickly, because she clearly has a pulse when the camera’s on her. Also, her character is inquisitive in a way that Reese really isn’t, and as we learned from “Lost,” the archetypal Michael Emerson character works best when he’s paired with someone who keeps questioning him – even if he never gives satisfactory answers.
Despite the presence of Nolan (who’s co-written most of his brother Christopher’s films, including “Memento” and “The Prestige”) and producer J.J. Abrams, this is very much a CBS crime procedural, one that could fit comfortably alongside “The Mentalist,” et al. But it would help an awful lot if Caviezel had a few Red Bulls first.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com