The paranoid techno thriller “Person of Interest,” which ended its third season on CBS, is subject to all the conventional wisdom about why broadcast drama is inherently inferior to cable. It presumably faces network censors and meddling executives; it passed through the homogenizing pilot process; it’s produced by committee over a long schedule (with 13 writers credited for this season’s 23 episodes).
Yet somehow it manages to be infectiously enjoyable, an attribute that is grievously undervalued – and in short supply – during our so-called golden age of TV.
“Person of Interest” is nowhere near perfect. The dialogue is rarely more than serviceable. The action and gunplay are often pedestrian. Over the course of a season, it will have its share of inferior, wrongheaded episodes; this time they were concentrated around the midseason death of Detective Carter, played by Taraji P. Henson.
But along with a handful of other shows –“Grimm” on NBC, “The Good Wife” and “Elementary” on CBS, to a lesser extent “Nashville” on ABC – it makes an argument for the continued resilience of the broadcast model, with all its imperfections. These shows are not just lighter and brighter but also better acted and more narratively engaging than most cable dramas. They demonstrate that with good judgment and, crucially, flexibility, a long-season, assembly-line series can be more than the sum of its parts.
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In “Person of Interest,” the foundation for success has been a sturdy but not restrictive premise, smart casting and adroit responses to the need to expand and complicate the story and the roster of characters as the seasons pile up.
The show’s central fact has been the existence of the Machine, a secret supercomputer that watches everyone in the United States and predicts both terrorist acts and everyday crimes. (This premise has looked more prescient with every revelation about the National Security Agency’s snooping, and those revelations have been worked into the plot.) In the beginning, the show was largely a New York procedural, with the buddy heroes Finch (Michael Emerson), who designed the Machine, and the lethal Reese (Jim Caviezel) investigating the nonterror cases that the government ignored.
Since then, Jonathan Nolan, the series’ creator, and his team have gradually shifted it into a long-arc conspiracy thriller: A sinister corporation has developed a more powerful version of the Machine that threatens to turn the country into a police state while the government dithers, not sure which side to take.
Most serialized shows botch this sort of transition and lose steam, often around Season 3. (Look at “Homeland” on Showtime, and ponder the near future of “The Americans” on FX.)
Smart shows avoid that. The developments in “Person of Interest” don’t violate our trust. Finch, whose ambivalence about his creation is the main tension of the show, has had crises of confidence and conscience but has never done anything that wasn’t true to his nature.
And he keeps getting new people to bounce off, as he slowly opens up to the world and takes a more active role in his team’s missions. Henson and Annie Parisse have left the show, but their characters have been replaced by sharply different personalities who have shaken up the chemistry in interesting and credible ways.
The glum assassin Shaw has been a good fit for Sarah Shahi, who finds the humor in her character’s hangdog ennui and has amusing rapport with Reese; Fusco, the formerly corrupt cop who’s wonderfully played by Kevin Chapman; and particularly Root, the messianic hacker played by the distinctive actress Amy Acker (“Angel”).
Will “Person of Interest” be as good in Season 4? There’s no way of knowing. But unlike its cable competition, it’s likely to be different, surprising and idiosyncratic, for better or worse.