Monday, September 26, 2011

What "Person of Interest" could learn from "Fringe"

James Caviezel and Michael Emerson in Person of Interest and Anna Torv, John Noble and Joshua Jackson in Fringe. Photos courtesy of and

The pilot for CBS's Jonathan Nolan-created, J.J. Abrams-produced Person of Interest turned out to be one of the better pilots of the fall season. The premise is intriguing, there are some badass action scenes, and Michael Emerson is... well, he's Michael Emerson. However, the premiere demonstrated a tendency to stick with a more procedural format and ignore some of the larger questions, which was also a concern when a little show called Fringe premiered three years ago. If Person of Interest  is to become a unique, intriguing sci-fi show rather than just CSI: 1984, it should follow the lead of Abrams' other sci-fi success. (Obviously I mean creative success, not ratings success. For the love of God, people, start watching Fringe so I don't have to spend the next year dying inside every time I see the Friday ratings.) Here are some pointers to help get the writers started.

1. Expand beyond the procedural
The first season of Fringe was largely a sci-fi procedural similar to The X-Files, in which the Fringe team solved mysterious cases while slowly uncovering the corners of the bigger picture. In the second and especially third seasons, however, the show expanded beyond the case-of-the-week structure, building two convincing worlds and revealing an epic, possibly apocalyptic conflict. The procedural element is still there, but these days it's always used in the service of the larger story and never, ever gets boring. Person of Interest might have a harder time following this lead, since it's on CBS, home of eight hundred iterations of CSI, but it's worth the extra work to find a compelling, long-term narrative to balance the procedural format.

2. Exploit the possibilities of your premise
One of the most fun elements of watching Fringe (besides playing Spot the Observer, which I'm terrible at) is seeing the way the writers have used the alternate universe as an opportunity to create a world with enough small differences from ours to seem alien, yet still recognizable. These differences can be used for dramatic effect, as was the case with the big reveal that the Twin Towers are still standing Over There, or they can be used in subtle ways that show how the two universes diverged, such as Red Lantern comics and the 11th season of The West Wing. Person of Interest has the potential to be a fascinating exploration of the role of surveillance in the modern world, and that premise could be used to do some really cool things. I'd like to see some time devoted to the dystopian possibilities of the surveillance web, or maybe some exploration into the ways that web can be used with social media. I just know Facebook is watching me...

3. Let your supporting cast shine
Right now, Person of Interest is keeping the focus squarely on Emerson's Finch and Caviezel's Reese at the expense of Taraji P. Henson's Carter. Fringe, on the other hand, has a rich cast of supporting characters, such as Astrid, Broyles and Nina Sharp, just to name a few. Fan favorite Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel) just got promoted to series regular, and his stellar work in the fourth-season premiere totally justified that promotion. Let us get to know background players like Carter and Detective Fusco (Kevin Chapman); if they're half as interesting as Lincoln or Charlie (Kirk Acevedo) their increased screentime will pay off.

4. You can put your dour, humorless lead to good use
Much of the criticism leveled at Person of Interest had to do with Caviezel's lead performance. I didn't find him all that offensive - he was certainly great at all the ass-kicking he had to do - but his performance was largely limited to glowering, scowling and rasping his lines. (Seriously, someone has caught a case of the Christian Bale over here.) During the first season of Fringe, many similar complaints concerned Anna Torv's performance as Olivia, and they were pretty much on target. The show worked around that, however, presenting Olivia as an emotionally stunted, closed-off character who gradually warms up to Peter and Walter, and eventually giving her a kick-ass, wisecracking doppelganger with a better haircut and much more personality. The doppelganger thing obviously won't work with Person of Interest - unless there's an alternate universe we don't know about - but the point is remains that Anna Torv went from being one of the worst actresses on television to one of the best. Show 'em what you can do, Caviezel.

5. Include a cow
Why? Because cows make everything better. And they provide milk.


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