The rise of increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology has been a rich inspiration for popular culture in recent years, and with Fox’s “Minority Report” and NBC’s “The Player” joining CBS’ “Person of Interest,” network television now has three shows on the subject.
But as much as these shows have to say about the mood of our times, they’re also a valuable illustration of what can happen when the dramatic imperatives of television clash with the desire to explore big ideas.
Whether what the characters on these shows do is right, the depictions of victims’ pain and suffering suggest that their actions are necessary. It’s hard to stage a strong critique with the cards stacked that way.
But in their own ways, each show does manage to parse some interesting issues around crime and our emotional reactions to it. In “Person of Interest,” which is heading into its fifth season on CBS, the action is driven by the idea that law enforcement agencies have focused on terrorism to the detriment of their investigations into more run-of-the-mill crimes that still do enormous damage to their victims.
“A machine doesn’t understand the difference between crimes that are relevant to national security and those that aren’t,” computer genius Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) tells John Reese (Jim Caviezel), the Delta Force and CIA operative he recruits to help him decipher the data that filter out of a back door Finch built into a government surveillance program.
The Social Security numbers Finch’s program spits out belong to people who are either about to commit crimes or become the victims of them. Finch and Reese are supposed to be the constraints on an amoral artificial intelligence, the conscience in the machine.
While Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” feature film focused on the ethics of the so-called pre-crime program, where suspects were arrested before they could actually commit their intended crimes, Fox’s television adaptation of the film, which premiered last week, is set in a world where the pre-crime program has been abolished because it ended up incarcerating people who chose not to act. By following Dash (Stark Sands), one of the precognitive siblings who had visions of crimes that were about to take place, Fox’s “Minority Report” also reverses the emotional polarity around how the story treats crime.
“It was the idea of focusing on the precognitives who are the people who are traumatized and suffered the emotional impact of experiencing these murder visions all of their lives … and then emerge in this, kind of, what you imagine is this almost embryonic state but as adults, is just fascinating,” writer Max Borenstein said in August.
“And it also allows us to dig into the ethical issues of what responsibilities someone has if they see that future.”
“The Player,” which premiered on NBC Thursday night, has the pulpiest, most gleefully amoral approach to mass surveillance and crime prediction, which in an odd way lets it be blunter about the potential nastiness of both practices. In “The Player,”a private organization has tapped all the data collection programs in existence and uses the information to flag upcoming crimes. And while that organization employs someone — in this case, a Special Forces type now in private practice named Alex (Philip Winchester) — to try to stop those crimes, they do so only so the hyper-wealthy will have something to bet on.
Mass surveillance isn’t dressed up as a necessary evil here; it’s quite literally a game. And while Alex agrees to be the player in the game because he hopes it will let him do some good, it’s clear from the beginning that he has made a dreadful bargain.
And while we may not be placing wagers, we’ve been tuning in to see whether criminals would get away with it since long before the advent of the futuristic technology that drives “Person of Interest,” “Minority Report” and “The Player.” That may not make us the most powerful evil. But “The Player” at least serves up a reminder that we’re complicit in treating crime as entertainment, too.