Okay fellow Person of Interstites, Machineheads, or FanPOIs (do we have a name?), it's 2013 so it's time to crank up the criticism and be a little harsher on our favorite show about a vigilante odd couple. I say this because while I really enjoy Person of Interest, it tends to be a difficult show to cover. Aside from the occasional serialization-heavy installment, it's procedural backbone doesn't lend itself to much commentary from episode to episode outside of recapping whether the case of the week was fun or not, the funny things Finch said, and what new high-caliber toy Reese has to play with.
Thankfully last night's algebraic "2πR," which was largely procedural, gave us something big to talk about by leaving Reese out of the equation (haha, math pun! Don't worry, there are plenty more coming...) almost entirely. The formula for Person of Interest is "geeky billionare + badass special op + super computer = vigilante ass-kickings for bad guys," but Mr. Badass Special Op spent the entire episode behind bars after being captured by the FBI in the winter finale. *flips through seventh-grade algebra book* Subtracting Mr. Badass Special Op from the first half of the equation means we also have to subtract it from the second half of the equation, but we should probably add "x(Fusco)" and "Carter/FBI "somewhere in there... point is, did Reese's absence leave us with a satisfying answer? I'm going to say no.
I love when series take risks like this, and Person of Interest has always found surprising ways to tinker with its formula. Early in the series' life the norm was shaken up when Finch had to go into the field to save Reese or Reese had to team up with Carter or that great arc when Reese had to team up with the machine to find Finch. In "2πR," Reese was more absent than he's ever been, leaving the number of the week entirely in Finch's hands. But whereas those other episodes helped define characters through different circumstances, "2πR" was really just Person of Interest without one of its main draws.
"2πR" was a missed opportunity to delve deep into Finch's character and show us more of his shady past, but other than confirming Finch's incredible hacking skillz, we didn't learn much about him at all. And I think that's becoming a problem. What made Season 1 (and the early part of Season 2) so excellent were the slow reveals of Reese and Finch's intriguing backstories. Finch may have helped murder Nathan Ingram! Reese was running away from explosions in China! The computer used to call Finch daddy! All these details and questions kicked the show into a higher gear, something smarter and more interesting than NCIS or CSI. We're just not getting that these days, which is turning POI into something fairly standard for CBS. It's almost as if the network told Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman to tone down the complex character backstories and simplify things. We got a taste of the backstory goodness in "Contingency" by witnessing the early days of Finch and the computer, and the same was true in "'Til Death" when we saw Finch put the moves on Grace, but my brain (which I don't always trust, so let me know if I'm wrong) tells me we haven't had many other history lessons. What drew me into Person of Interest initially was getting to know these outstanding characters and continually adding pieces to the puzzle. I want to see more of Reese's heartbreak from "Many Happy Returns." I want to see more of Finch's dealings with Nathan Ingram. As of late, things seem paused on that front.
Anyway, semi-rant over, new rant begins. This week Finch went undercover as a substitute teacher to keep eyes on Caleb, a troubled genius who tanked tests but probably proved difficult math theorems on chalkboards when no one was looking. Finch played Robin Williams to Caleb's Matt Damon and after lots of wheel-spinning he eventually got to the bottom of Caleb's malaise: Caleb was soaked with guilt after being indirectly responsible for his brother's death. So Caleb took care of his drunk mother and was computer-coding up a fancy new compression algorithm that would allow people to store a ripped copy of the Blu-ray version of Friends: The Complete Series (or PDFs of the entire Library of Congress, as the episode chose) on a 100MB flash drive. With help from the school's computer science teacher (whose inclusion in the story was merely to throw us off the scent), Caleb's work would find investors and turn Caleb into a bazillionaire. Only Caleb didn't want the money for himself, he wanted to give it all to his alkie mom and kill himself when he was 17 years, 6 months, and 21 days old, the same age his brother was when he died. How very emo. There was also a drug dealer (played by The Wire's Wee-Bey!) who wanted to extort Caleb, but that storyline fizzled out like a wet match almost as suddenly as it was introduced. To me, there were a lot of unnecessary moving parts in the case—the teacher, the drug dealer, the dealers in the school, the audio flashbacks to the subway accident—that kept it from being substantive, and the "woe is me" teen and his idiotic and convoluted idea to commit suicide in honor of his brother didn't help. Caleb's grief was so surface-level that we never really got to know him or his despair. I liked the general idea of the case, but the execution just wasn't there.
But the case wasn't the only messy situation that needed solving. The FBI was getting closer to pinning Reese as the mythic Man in the Suit, thanks to DNA evidence against him, and Finch tasked Carter with making sure that didn't happen. Carter, what the F are you doing? Weren't you the moral police in Season 1? Now you're pulling clothes out of your slut drawer (she looked fwiiiiine though, right?), drugging Johns to swab their cheeks, and breaking into FBI labs and tampering with evidence? Puh-leeeeze. And Carter was just like, "Okay sure I'll seduce guys and violate them and take down FBI security cameras why not?" Whatever helps Reese out, I guess. I think Carter worked better when she wasn't fully employed by Reese and Finch.
I know several of you probably enjoyed the episode, and indeed there were some great parts, particularly seeing Finch as Mr. Swift the substitute teacher. But Reese's absence left a huge void that Finch, Carter, and Fusco couldn't fill. Without Reese, the episode became a very standard procedural without the action we've come to expect from the show. Had Person of Interest used the opportunity to make "2πR" a Finch-centric episode, complete with backstory and strong character moments, it would have been a different story. But instead it was just a normal episode of Person of Interest without Reese, and that's a formula that just doesn't add up. (And no I will not apologize for all my stupid math puns.)
NOTES OF INTEREST
– How many actors from The Wire have appeared on this show?
– This week's Finch quote: "May I remind you that of the many things I am equipped to do, pursuit is not a chief one of them."
– No Bear makes me sad.
– So next week, Carter gets to torture/interrogate Reese? That should be interesting!
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom