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Home»Features»Person of Interest: Jonathan Nolan’s sci-fi drama series critiques on state surveillance»

Person of Interest: Jonathan Nolan’s sci-fi drama series critiques on state surveillance

A revisit on TV series as its star, Sarah Shahi, who played the iconic Sameen Shaw celebrates her birthday

Person of Interest: Jonathan Nolan’s sci-fi drama series critiques on state surveillance
  • Ryan Gomez

Last Updated: 06.23 PM, Jan 12, 2022

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American network television shows have often paled in comparison to cable TV shows in terms of quality. It is often attributed to the fact that writers for network television often have limited creative freedom when compared to their cable counterparts. The most obvious examples would be HBO and The CW, and this is even more profound in dramas. The consensus is that network shows have to curate their shows to a particular demographic that is also family-friendly. But there are few exceptions to this trend, one of them being Jonatha Nolan’s sci-fi drama Person of Interest. The series found the right balance in keeping the series PG-13 whilst also discussing mature themes of state surveillance and the right to privacy. In this social media age, the series has suddenly become more relevant and has almost foreshadowed certain aspects of data mining. The series focuses on a reclusive tech genius who creates an all-seeing AI and hires a former CIA assassin to help the people of New York City.

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The series stars Jim Caviezel as John Reese, a former US Army Special Forces and CIA operative who is presumed dead. He is tracked down and hired by Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) to help prevent crimes on innocent civilians before they are committed. Finch, also presumed dead, had developed an AI for the government after the 9/11 attacks to prevent further terror attacks they simply refer to as the ‘machine’ that spies on every US citizen. Its algorithm can detect and predict any crime. But it deems local crimes on individuals as irrelevant. So Finch, who now works in the shadows, takes it upon himself to help the people on the irrelevant list. Reese and Finch are later joined by two NYPD detectives, Joss Carter (Taraji P Henson) and Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman), another ex-CIA Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi), and a mentally unstable hacker named Root (Amy Acker).

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The premise and the setting alone makes the show an intriguing prospect. Each episode focuses on the team tasked with protecting individuals from imminent danger, and the overarching narrative usually being a powerful foe that could potentially disrupt their operations or create chaos on a larger scale. But the central theme of the series is an individual’s right to privacy. Back when the series was first aired in 2012, social media had only begun its dominance in cyberspace. There are several instances throughout the series which highlights the dangers of taking part in various online challenges that scan photographs and ask seemingly innocuous personal questions. Most major tech giants, Facebook, in particular, have been accused of being complicit in data mining, which has been allegedly used to determine voting patterns and as tools for mass propaganda.

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Towards the latter stages of Person of Interest, the challenge the main protagonists must overcome is the threat of the ‘machine’ falling into the wrong hands. The argument for ‘state surveillance’ is that those who are innocent have nothing to worry about law enforcement reading one’s emails and texts, listening into one’s personal conversations, or going through one’s internet history. But the danger this poses to democracy is that if such a system is implemented there is no guarantee that the people in charge of it will not use it for their own agenda, be it for personal gains or collective gains. For instance, if an authoritarian regime gets its hands on such an AI, it would have the power to eliminate dissenters and political rivals and become a totalitarian regime.

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Person of Interest presents these arguments through its dramatised narrative. Each of its characters are written to be flawed in their own way, and the moral and ethical conundrums this narrative presents are explored through them. Characters such as Enrico Colantoni’s Carl Elias and Paige Turco’s Zoe Morgan explore the grey areas of society. It provokes the audience to introspect their own beliefs on privacy, state surveillance, and their dependence on social media. Of course, Finch worked on the moral principle that he will not gain access to any private information, instead, his ‘machine’ simply uses its algorithm to calculate the chances a person is of being involved in a crime and shares only their social security number. The team will have to conduct their own investigation to determine whether the person is a victim or perpetrator.

The series can be regarded as under-appreciated to some extent. It certainly has not received the hype and fanfare as HBO’s Westworld (another series helmed by Jonathan Nolan). The series ran for five successful seasons at CBS and will be regarded as an important piece of social commentary significant to the socio-political fabric of societies from the 2010s.

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