Person of Interest: The Pilot: The Beginning Is a Promise

Person of Interest Binge LogoSomeday, I’m going to do a post analyzing my top five TV pilots, and when I do, this episode will be one of them, along with the Leverage pilot and the first episode of the UK’s Life on Mars. (After that, I’m still cogitating.) It does everything a long-form story beginning should do, and it does it brilliantly.

Person-of-Interest-1x01-Pilot

I think the show at its inception considered John Reese to be the central character (I’d argue now that it’s Finch) and that’s why the opening does the shorthand of here’s-Reese-healthy-and-happy-and-here’s-Reese-now. Since I’m not a fan of flashbacks (who knew?) I could have done without that happy-Reese part because the subway scene is so well done. One of the strongest emotions to evoke in your reader/viewer is outrage, the this-is-not-FAIR response in the reader or viewer. It’s what powers Cinderella (“She’s the nice one and she’s being treated badly!), Harry Potter (“He’s such a good kid and he’s being treated badly!”), Buffy (“She’s trying so hard to have a normal life and on one will let her!”), Leverage (“He’s in agony over the death of his son and that bastard used it to manipulate him and then tried to kill him!”) and so many more fairy tales, books, and film stories. Injustice is gonna get ’em every time. And that under two-minute subway scene is brilliantly unjust.

It’s particularly smart that injustice in this first scene comes at the hands of white trust-fund snots; there’s no excuse for the way they’re behaving, they’re just sociopathic punks. So when after trying to avoid the conflict, the tramp gets up and kicks their butts six ways to Sunday, the reader/viewer is cemented to him: he’s Our Guy. (When he does it again later in the episode, it’s just plain fun. Never underestimate the power of Fun.) This scene also foreshadows the later gun buy since Anton mentions it in Reese’s hearing, and it also establishes Reese as a dangerous man. All this in under two minutes. That’s a terrific introduction to Our Hero without feeling like it’s an introduction.

That scene gets us to the police station and the second of the important characters in the first season PoI community: Detective Carter, the smart cop with a heart, who tries her best to reach Reese in a scene that’s so pivotal there’ll be a callback to it in Season Three. The fact that Carter is the only truly emotionally healthy character in the entire episode could be chalked up to the fact that she’s The Woman, but she’s also tougher than the rest of the guys, more focused than the rest of them, and more thoughtful than the rest of them, clearly a character to reckon with. And that’s all done in another minute.

Then a lawyer shows up and escorts Reese out of the building (while the fingerprint guy is showing Carter the record that’s come up and asking, “Who you got down there, the Angel of Death?”) to meet his future better half, Harold Finch, in a deserted park at dawn, a fairly blatant setting-metaphor for the new life being offered him. Reese tries the hero’s Refusal of Call at the eight-minute mark, but Finch is stronger and smarter than he is and draws him in, not with money although he offers him that, but with what he knows he really needs, a purpose to his life. More than that, he’s offering Reese, a man with a savior complex, “the chance to be there in time.” Seen through the lens of four subsequent seasons, that offer takes on an entirely new level of importance as the Machine Gang races to save the world in Season Five, but it all begins with this pilot episode and this first offer of the chance to be there in time for this one individual victim.

That’s the first twelve minutes of a forty-three-minute story, and it’s important not just because it sets up the episode but because it sets up the first season and, beyond that, the entire series.

We’ve talked here before about the beginning of a story as a promise the writer makes the reader. It says, essentially, “This is the tone of the story you’re about to read, this is the setting, this is the character you’ll be following, this is the fight you’ll be watching, this is the world you’ll be vicariously living in.” It sets up the expectation of the rest of the story.

So this beginning says, “The tone of this story will be tense and intelligent, the setting will be a cold and crowded city, the protagonist will be a damaged, isolated man outnumbered by the forces fighting against him, and the world will be a hyper-realistic modern jungle seen repeatedly through the eyes of an AI.” Swap out “a damaged, isolated man” for “a team of damaged people cut off from the rest of society” and you’ve got the beginning of Season Five. The people of PoI always work outside the system, always work under the radar, are always out-numbered, and know that they are going to be defeated sooner or later; as Finch tells Reese at their first meeting, if he agrees to work with Finch, they’ll both probably end up dead. Until then, though, they’ll keep heading back into the fight against overwhelming odds, and the subtext is that the fight is always worth dying for.

The series moves on from the simple story of the pilot, growing ever more complex with each season, but it never moves on from that promise at the beginning of the pilot: it’s the bedrock that story rests on.

The episode’s save-the-innocent plot that follows this beginning is nicely done with great reversals and some truly tense scenes, but it’s there in service of the main conflict: it shows Reese that this is what he needs, giving Finch the win in the real protagonist/antagonist struggle of the episode, not the conflict between Reese and the corrupt police organization, HR, but Reese vs Finch for Reese’s future. It also brings in the fourth member of the community, the crooked cop Fusco who takes Reese out to the wilds of Oyster Bay to execute him and finds himself out-smarted, out-gunned, and out-sourced into doing good for the Machine-Gang-to-be, another beginning move that’s going to pay off in huge ways throughout the remaining seasons.

So this pilot:

Introduces the main characters in vivid ways that lead the reader/viewer to want to know more about them.

Presents the protagonist/ antagonist conflict as not just an external battle of one man trying to co-opt another man into working for him, but extends it to a much larger battle that can be played out over an entire first act/season: the battle to determine what that man’s future will be. Which means it also

Sets up the character arc of the main characters, and in so doing

Foreshadows the community arc of four people coming together as a team.

Establishes the setting, which is not just New York, but New York as seen through the eyes of the Machine.

Establishes the Machine as the organizing principle, directing their actions and overseeing their lives, subtly foreshadowing the five acts/seasons to come. In this first episode, it’s just a computer program, an easy-to-understand concept that’s going to be blown wide open by the end of the season/act, evolving into an extremely complex concept by the end of the story in Season/Act Five.

Sets up the structure (number of the week) of that first act/season.

Symbolizes through the structure the meaning or theme of that first act/season (saving Reese; saving the solitary, guilt-ridden Finch; saving the surrounded-by-corrupt-cops Carter, saving the lost and despairing Fusco) by making each episode a single example of salvation that arcs the big one of the first season. Then it continues to expand on that beginning structure for the next three seasons and (fingers crossed) into the last season.

And it does all of that in forty-three minutes. Even if you don’t watch the rest of the series, the Person of Interest pilot can show you everything you need to know about elegantly introducing a compelling long-form story by making the ending inherent in the beginning.

Weakest Parts:
The damn flashbacks to Happy Reese.

Smart Story Moves:
• The careful set-up of reversal after reversal, none of which are gotchas.
• Having Reese ask “Where is the Machine now?” as subtle foreshadowing for the first season finale, creating a bookend for the season.
• Upping the stakes by having the victim’s young son with him; upping our hatred of corrupt cop Stills who smiles and plans to kill the boy, too.
• Showing the big shoot out as gun flashes seen from the outside, the Machine’s POV.
• Reese shooting Stills with Fusco’s gun, the first in a number of long-game moves Reese makes that show that Finch isn’t the only smart guy on the team.
• Finch offering Reese as much money as he needs to leave so that staying is a free choice, the only way that Reese can be a classic hero on a classic hero’s journey.

Favorite moments:
• Reese handing the trust-fund punks their asses. That never gets old.
• Carter sympathetically giving Reese a cup of water and then taking the cup for fingerprints and DNA.
• The library as secret fortress
• “I don’t like firearms.” “Neither do I, but if somebody has to have them, I’d rather it was me.”
• Ripping off the trust fund punks, especially the part where he shows Anton’s friend what’s wrong with the way he holds his gun.
• Standing in the middle of the street to save the kid in the car.
• “I offered you a job, Mr. Reese. I never said it would easy.”
• Reese telling Fusco he’s going to let him live because he’s loyal. “Do you have your vest on, officer?”
• The little boy’s ball rolling to Reese’s feet while he’s holding a gun on the thug, and Reese smiling and kicking it back while my heart pounded.
• The playback on the tape machine in court.
• “Is that where he is, Witness Protection?” “No, Lionel. He’s in the trunk.”

Ominous Moment:
Finch’s statement that “we’ll probably both end up dead.” Please don’t let that be foreshadowing for Season Five. I love these people.

Next PoI Post: “The Fix” tomorrow; we’re talking about supporting characters.

Table of Contents with Links to all PoI Posts

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29 thoughts on “Person of Interest: The Pilot: The Beginning Is a Promise

  1. I generally don’t like being spoiled if I haven’t watched something. But your analyses of episodes never seem to affect my enjoyment of a show if I see it after reading one of these.

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  2. Character moment: Fusco is the one to drive Reese out for execution because Fusco is the one who got the drop on him! (And is the only character of the main cast to truly get the drop on Reese.) Even though Reese turns the tables on him in spectacular fashion, (also demonstrating Reese’s wildcard/reckless manner when it comes to violence) it establishes that Fusco is no bumbling cop.
    Fusco’s redemption is also set up in his introduction, in which we see through his irreverent testimony that his disdain for the law is less about actual disdain for the law, like Stills, but but frustration with its efficacy.

    My other top character moment is the raw emotion Jim puts on Reese’s face when hearing the woman’s death on the radio. Apparently, in the original conception of the character, Reese was supposed to be more of a traditional dude spy, more like how Dillinger turned out in RAM, but Jim came in with this interpretation, and I’m so thankful for it. That scene shows immediately codifies that Reese has no macho bluster, that he’s a bleeding heart, and really shows us just why he not just needs this job, but why he’s the ideal man for it: like Finch, he will truly care about saving these people. It won’t just be a job. He cares, so we care.

    And yes, I love that the show continually reinforces that this is about saving people, one person at a time, rejecting to go off into all-serialized land. Even the AI plot is still filtered through numbers, and each episode centered around a person to be saved/averted, no matter how key it is to the overall plot. And they keep justifying it through character reasons. It’s brilliant fractal storytelling, keeps the show grounded, continues to humanize our main cast of uber-competents and geniuses, and is just such a strong thematic statement worth exploring, when most super-serialized shows seem to get off on how callously humanity can treat each other.

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    1. Ditto everything you said about Reese in the hotel. It’s a wonderful moment for Finch, too, and it makes you understand how awful it must have been for him to know what was happening and not be able to stop it. I love Emerson’s delivery of that phrase “the chance to be there in time.” He put so much behind it, and made it so clear that Harold needs that just as much as Reese.

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  3. I have to admit that while I liked this pilot, it didn’t leave me with a pressing need to go straight to the next episode. It did what it needed to do, but procedurals/detective shows do not interest me at all, and at that point, I assumed I was looking at a “case of the week” series. I was glad I hung in there and gave it more time to hook me.

    I think Firefly has my favorite pilot of all time (the actual pilot, not the awful, hacked-up second episode the network aired instead). Whedon had a huge cast to introduce in one pilot, and he did it in a way that leaves you eager to learn more about each and every one of them. Buffy also has a first-rate pilot, if only for the opening scene, which perfectly sets up the premise of the entire show, without even showing us Buffy. Jessica Jones is my final nomination for great pilot. We learn about her world, we become terrified of her villain despite not even seeing him, and we understand that she is a very reluctant hero, who will nevertheless stand up and fight.

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    1. Ooh, definitely ditto the Firefly pilot.
      I think The Train Job is a good pilot as well, though. Despite its shorter runtime necessarily truncating some of the intrigue surrounding Simon and River, it establishes characterization, relationship dynamics, and some of the show’s major themes. And Firefly didn’t have a season arc, so the lack of Simon/River plot didn’t hurt it as a pilot.

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  4. Good pilots: USA seems to know how to do a pilot that draws you in. Even if you don’t want to watch the whole show, or even the first season, you should watch the pilots to White Collar and Suits as almost tv-movies. *Good* tv movies. I did not watch either of those two to the end, but I still consider both the pilots to be worth re-watching.

    I was also highly entertained by the Lie to Me pilot (mostly for the airport security line scene).

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      1. That moment where Peter realized exactly what Neal was doing … it’s like “he’s not fucking me over! he’s helping! in the best way possible!”

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          1. Yes, when he goes from despair to euphoria in 2.5 seconds. I love that part.

            If you haven’t seen the Lie to Me pilot, you really should. Tim Roth does deliberately confrontational amazingly well (it would pair well with Elementary, had they been on at the same time). The pilot is great for the recruitment strategy at the end (I think?).

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          2. I’ve seen all the episodes of Lie To Me, some of them a couple of times. I really liked them, the cast is great, but I had problems connecting to the story because that whole micro-expression thing has been debunked. Add to that, the protagonist is never wrong (which is why he’s an arrogant jerk so much of the time) and it’s not really something I rewatch. But Tim Roth is phenomenal in that, his performance has no ego whatsoever, and I can watch his scenes over and over, just to see him go for it.

            OTOH, the “only ten percent of your brain” theory is pretty much hogwash, and I love Limitless. The saving grace there, I think, is that Limitless knows it’s science fiction, they’re not pretending that the stuff they show on there is possible now. Of course, Person of Interest started the same way–“none of this is real, it’s all AI science fiction”–and then the Snowden thing blew up. I think they’re running pretty hard now trying to stay ahead of reality.

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      2. I have been following your blog forever – I usually just read it, without making any comments. However, I had to respond here because White Collar is one of my absolute favorite shows. If you ever feel like it, please please do an analysis of it, even if you do just the pilot! I would love to read your break down of the plot, the characters, and everything else.

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        1. I was just thinking about maybe doing a series of pilots, just to study beginnings. White Collar would definitely be in there.

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          1. And this may be the haze of nostalgia, but did you ever see the 1998 series Cupid? (the version with Jeremy Piven, not the version with Bobby Cannavale). I have such love for that show. A rom-com every week, with a fast-talking Cupid who just wanted people to hook up (sample motivational speech: “Make a move! Get in the game! You gonna get hurt? Have a beautiful trainwreck.”)

            It’s not available on DVD, or conventional streaming, but I believe someone has uploaded all of them to Youtube. Oh, yes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKTgR67S2xU. Not the best quality video, but the writing …

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          2. I loved that show. I am not a Piven fan at all, but that was really good. And they were getting good ratings when they were cancelled, too.

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  5. Yes, Firefly!

    And I’m sorry to say, but I just read online that they’ve cancelled POI and the coming season is going to be their last. Sorry, Jenny.

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    1. I knew. That’s why I rushed into this. They’re also burning off the episodes twice a week, which shows you how dumb this network is. OTOH, I get more PoI faster, so I’m good. And the showrunners had plenty of warning, so the series will have a real end.

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  6. Now I need to rescue my DVDs from mom so I can start rewatching!

    I love the dynamic between Harold and John; and then the two of them with the rest of Team Machine. They are all smart, well-written characters. Harold is not the only smart person on the team – each episode gives us a different smart person (some days it is even the number: read Elias / Dominick).

    Sadly I think Finch foreshadows the end. Course they’ve all died before…

    Other pilots to add: Justified and Burn Notice.

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  7. I came into this series late, and just finished Season 4 on Netflix. This breakdown is eye-opening as to why I LOVE this series so much. Thank you, Jennifer!! So much to apply to my own writing.

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  8. Amazon has a number of Romances on sale for 99c. Among them one by Robena Grant. I “ran” over here to tell everyone and closed the window because I won’t buy any after buying two other novels in the last week.

    Don’t know how long it lasts for or if it is permanent. But worth a look.

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  9. I re-watched this a couple days ago with friends who hadn’t seen it before. It was nice to see the delighted reaction to Reese kicking Anton and company’s asses (twice) in first time viewers.

    I haven’t seen the pilot that many times, and watching it again, I was struck by how fast they introduced everyone and set up the premise. I could have done without the flashbacks, and it’s a sign of how much I didn’t care for them that I remembered being annoyed by them the first time I saw this.

    That scene in the hotel is one of my favorites in the episode. Caviezel was excellent, and he really sold just how much Reese feels. I’m getting ahead of myself, but one of the reasons I love “RAM” is that you can see the contrast between Dillinger and Reese, and it really drives in the fact that the reason Reese is necessary for this job is because it could never be just a job to him. “RAM” makes it pretty clear that’s why Harold picked him. And that desperate look on his face when he’s cutting himself loose in the hotel in the pilot is the first time we see that.

    Very excited for “The Fix.” Zoe is great fun, and I’ve probably seen that one about 10 times by now.

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    1. I couldn’t believe that flashback and the subway scene were all done in under two minutes. That’s efficient storytelling, but it never feels rushed.

      Another thing I love about this pilot in hindsight is Finch standing in the meadow so calmly not moving, and then sitting in the chair in the hotel room, not moving, clearly believing that he’ll be sending Reese out to do things while he stays in the library and thinks. You look at the season four finale and think, “Boy, if you only knew, Finch.” But it really starts with “The Fix,” I think, when Reese basically says, “If I’m with her, I can’t search her apartment, get your ass in the game, Harold.”

      And then that great dinner scene at the end. Harold, you tricky bastard, I love you.

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      1. It’s been fun watching Harold in the field. That episode where Reese is in the wheelchair, and they have to trade jobs to some extent is a fun example of him getting out more and Reese having to fight with the computer work (is it called “Super”? I don’t feel like looking it up). Of course Reese is still lethal even on crutches, but still.

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        1. Yes, it’s called “Super,” with David Zayas as the super. It’s very “Rear Window” with the difference of an excellent reversal.

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  10. PoI is a terrific series, and you’ve now made me want to go back and re-watch the pilot (we’re a bit behind the US: we’re about a third of the way through season 4 in the UK, but I’ve got a reasonable knowledge of the overall plotline for the season.)

    I know it’s not an original thought, but basically if you combine Finch and Reese you’ve essentially got Batman: Finch is the brains and the money side, Reese is the physical side (and I don’t by that mean that Reese is stupid, of course!) Reese even has the voice…(and I’m now seeing Caviezel instead of Ben Afflec in the Batman vs Superman movie. That would have been cool…)

    One of the other things I like is that the series has such a pitch-black, but often hysterical, sense of humour. It would probably be unbearably grim without it.

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  11. A quick thought on good pilots: all the ones you’ve suggested are great (Leverage is a particular favourite), but I’d also put The West Wing up there. It’s a great example of how to introduce a large ensemble cast;by the end of the episode you know the key passions and problems of each character (Leo is desperately trying to keep a young and undisciplined White House staff on point, Josh is incredibly passionate, but also a privileged a**hole, etc.) and how they relate to each other, how the west wing functions, and so on.

    I’d say that Aaron Sorkin is (like Josh) often a privileged a** himself, but when he is writing at his best he is just astonishing.

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    1. Oh, the West Wing pilot is excellent. Introduces all those characters, still has a compelling plot, and then Martin Sheen comes in at the end and takes care of the religious bigots. Speaking of Sorkin, the Sports Night pilot is excellent, too. Such a great series.

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    2. Sometimes I go to YouTube and just watch the end where Bartlett comes in and says, “I am the Lord your God,” because it makes me so happy.

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