Over the past year or so I’ve been slowly working my way through Person of Interest . I can’t remember who first recommended it to me, but it may have been Eggwhite. As I approach the end of what’s been made, I increasingly think that the ideas being presented in the show and the subtext in its world construction may be the most relevant television currently on air. Packaged as simple escapist fun is an excoriating critique of our modern surveillance culture, and the morally questionable people we know to be in charge of such systems. Person of Interest is doing what good cultural production should do, in holding a mirror to the world and invitingly, enticingly, insightfully, revealing and considering key issues and concerns. I don’t want to go so far, as I might for The Wire, to say that it’s Important Television ™, but it is far far more interesting than average, and far more relevant than it appears at first glance.
At first I was downright sceptical, because the first few episodes really presented themselves as another beige procedural with a bit of a gimmick, something of an updated A-Team , Quantum Leap , a less spiritual Touched by an Angel , or a less esoteric version of The Pretender . To an extent, it has followed the same pattern as those shows, developing from a purely episodic endeavour into something with a background plot, a meta-plot that informs the structure of the individual episodes. I really wouldn’t have anticipated that story formula having expressed itself more than once, let alone five different versions, and there is very likely something between 1996 and 2011 that matches the pattern that I just missed in my non-TV-watching years. There is obviously something appealing about the idea of a guardian angel turning up and intervening in the problems of some beleaguered innocent, and the variations in the formula should tell us a fair amount about the different cultural anxieties that have existed in the different time of each show. Unavoidably, there are spoilers from here for all those shows, but especially Quantum Leap.
The premise of Quantum Leap was that Dr Sam Beckett’s consciousness travels from person to person across time, always arriving at a moment of crisis that only his skill and empathy can resolve. It was loosely sold as a science fiction story, but there wasn’t much science to be had in the show. The big question which drives the show is how the subjects for each leap are chosen. The stakes for Beckett’s quests are varied, but they’re usually about poor life outcomes – prison, poor marriage or career choices, loss of family cohesion – with death being a relatively uncommon hazard. Over the course of the show it becomes obvious that Beckett has an evil opposite, who leaps into situations and makes them worse. I don’t think this was ever fully developed, perhaps a hazard of the fully itinerant protagonist. What motivation there could be for either Beckett or his opposite is opaque, really coming down to the idea of a Big Other, a god, who’s guiding events. The Pretender is similarly broad in its hero’s remit, but his decisions are informed by a nebulous understanding of fragments from newspapers and other reports.
The basic world construction of Quantum Leap is therefore somewhat optimistic. Beckett is sent by a perfectly omniscient and benevolent Big Other. The primary tool that he uses to change events is actually empathy; because he is literally inhabiting someone else’s perspective, Beckett is usually able to see both sides of problems and to help those around him develop empathetic responses. Where more extreme interventions are required, Beckett effectively “Bill & Ted’s” the solution by knowing the path previously taken and spotting the branch points. His mission is very much about changing hearts and minds, about getting the people he was sent to help to change their perspectives on life and make different decisions. The recurrent theme is a kind of enlightenment principle: as Beckett enlightens people he improves the world. Despite dropping Beckett into the occasional fraught situation, the world of Quantum Leap is largely benign in its construction, and Beckett’s interventions are infrequent in time and disparate in position, making the problems faced by people feel like rare bad luck.
Person of Interest takes a different approach to thinking about every aspect of the basic story formula. Harold’s work to save lives isn’t the primary mission of his Big Other, it was built to prevent terrorism as a response to 9/11. Harold and his side-kick John don’t save anyone from themselves, really, they save them from deliberate harm intended by other human beings. The only stakes they acknowledge are life-or-death which means that any consequences of being “saved” are deemed acceptable; more than a few of the people they try to help effectively lose everything except their pulse. While Beckett brings literally nothing with him on each leap, Harold and his team deploy a range of tools to enact their mission, from “bluejacking” their targets’ phones to Harold’s billions. While Al can only tell Beckett the outline of events, Harold’s invasive surveillance tools allow effective real-time monitoring and intensive background information retrieval. Lastly, while Beckett is alone on each of his missions, Harold and John pressgang some local police detectives into service as official cover.
This is a quite dark view both on human nature and on the tools we use to save ourselves. The basic premise of the Big Other is that the world is so dangerous that it needs an omniscient being to continually monitor everything and alert the “proper authorities” about threats, which are neutralised not by empathetic understanding but by simple extermination. The designation of some of these dangers as “non-relevant” to the public interest, and hence the becoming purview of Harold and his team, is a straightforward devaluing of human life in a systemic and institutional way. Harold is aware of the danger his machine poses to freedom, and so chose to severely limit its ability to act on its understanding of the world. In effect though, once a target has been selected, Harold becomes a new kind of Big Other, virtually omnisciently overseeing their salvation from whatever mortal threat was being posed. The implication is that Harold’s basically moral character is a necessary check on a necessary evil of total surveillance, in what is effectively an argument for the means justifying the ends. The fact that so many numbers, both relevant and non-relevant, occur within the confined space of New York and particularly in the precinct of the two press-ganged officers, speaks volumes about the density of evil in the world.
The contrast over the past twenty years is thus one between hope and fear. Hope is simply about a better life, about right decisions, about living a good life. Fear is about life and death, and it takes itself very seriously. In the world of 1989 the US was just emerging from effectively winning the ideological argument about the value of Capitalism versus Communism. It was a moment when the basic values of American society seemed well-understood and successful. In the world of 2011 things seemed a lot less certain, and the omni-present fear of terrorism represents a more existential threat than Communism did by the close of the Cold War because its goals and methods are so ill-defined. I can tell you exactly what the Communist Manifesto, Capital or On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Amongst the People argue against The Wealth of Nations, I’m not sure I can so cogently articulate the position of “terrorism”, especially in the US context where most terrorism is domestic. The very non-monolithic nature of Terrorism allows an infinitely defined front line in the War on Terror ™, a far more insidious and existential threat to the idea of “freedom” than “totalitarianism” ever was.
Quantum Leap can thus present itself as apolitical, unfocused, altruism, in a way that’s not available for Person of Interest. The implication for storytelling is that Quantum Leap never really has to explain itself, because the idea of a good man helping good people is self-evidently valuable. The Pretender straddles an awkward line, where Jarod’s interventions might feel hokey and old-fashioned and so an antagonist force is created – but what does The Centre really want? It has a kind of motiveless malignancy, an almost mindless and directionless desire for control over something valuable: Jarod. There is no ambivalence about that moral conflict. What emerges over the course of Person of Interest is exactly the dialogue that seemed so resolved with the fall of the Berlin wall, the conflict between freedom, with its the inherent dangers and risks, and a safe totalitarian regime where an omniscient Big Other makes all the critical decisions.
The view on totalitarianism offered by Person of Interest is a utopian one, rather than the dystopia that we might conjure when thinking about the Stasi in East Germany. Whereas Stalinism et al provided a veneer of security over a reign of terror, Samaritan offers a genuinely peaceful world enforced through broadly understood principles of law. The means, of total surveillance and black-bag executions, are distasteful, but the end result is unquestionably an improvement on a statistical and generic basis. Good people are safe in the world it offers. Our heroes, opposed to Samaritan, are also therefore in effect agents for chaos, the necessary byproduct of Freedom. While our sympathies are with the characters positioned as the story protagonists (Harold et al), there is a real ambivalence, a real debate, about which side is morally right, and about what methods are appropriate and who can use them.
Like all basically procedural and episodic television, there’s a lot of noise between the really interesting story beats, but the topics that are crucial to the basic functioning of the story are the things of most urgent importance in the world right now. So I advocate sifting through it and engaging with its material. The most important question, I think is whether we want a world of hope, or one of fear.