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Is Person of Interest the new Burn Notice? – Monthly Musings

Each month I review an aspect of Pop Culture. This week, I compare CBS’ first-year ‘Person of Interest’ with USA’s sixth-year ‘Burn Notice.’ Both shows cover ex-CIA spies who save innocents on a local level. Are they really all that different?

Person of Interest is like Burn Notice’s third season where ex-spy Michael Westen ran around the city saving lives, pursued by a justice-bent female cop.

However, Person of Interest takes Michael Westen’s story one step further. What if the people Michael hinged his humanity upon died or disappeared? What would happen to Michael if his lover, Fiona, passed away; Sam, his best friend, became dirty beyond all salvage or was brutally killed; and Madeline, his mother, just was not around? What if Michael didn’t fight his burning? What if he accepted it and became bitter towards his former agency? What if Michael didn’t have a childhood home to house him or a Fiona to retrieve him from the airport? Well, you’d have an aimless, homeless, utterly broken spy drowning his fears in alcoholism. You’d have the start of Person of Interest.

And, what if the person who starts Michael on his local, crime-solving path is a nebbish, uber-cold, computer-savvy figure turned reclusively paranoid because of past difficulties? Well, you wouldn’t have the Miami Scooby gang. You’d have a cold Michael Westen who helped people with power and finesse but always seemed slightly empty. That’s where Person of Interest’s pilot ends.

Person of Interest is a grittier version of Burn Notice with all the warmth removed. In fact, it’s the Burn Notice we might’ve had if USA set it in the New York area (Newark,NJ) as originally planned. The pilot opens with homeless ex-spy, John Reese, who believes in good but no longer pursues it due to co-worker betrayal, an absent family, a dead lover and a dead best friend\CIA handler. After an inquisitive New York cop, Joss Carter, saves him from potentially brutal beatings (OK, she saves his pursuers from his brutally beating their asses), an eccentric computer-savvy genius, Harold Finch, requests his help in saving innocents from detrimental events predicted by a machine he created to avoid the next 9/11. Eventually, Reese encounters and bullies corrupt cop Lionel Fusco into helping his quest. Together, the four race around the city saving innocents from harm.

I am seriously obsessed with Person of Interest. The show isn’t one you can watch in pieces. You can follow the action, but you miss the small human components that compel you to return each week. The show features two film stars, James Patrick Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ, The Count of Monte Cristo, Pay It Forward) as John Reese and Taraji P. Henson (Think Like a Man, Larry Crowne, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) as Joss Carter, as well as film writer Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) as the creator. Although TV and film are increasingly inter-crossing, seeing such filmic talent all in one place on network TV (and on CBS) still feels rare.

Despite the absence of Burn Notice’s warmth, I’m intrigued by the show’s relationships. Burn Notice surrounds the core four’s mutual trust and respect for each other. However, in Person of Interest none of the core four fully trust each other. Despite relying on each other for survival, they aren’t aware of the other’s relationship in the big plot and continuously spy on each other.

Luckily, Reese’s relationship with Carter humanizes him. Whenever he worries about Carter or her son, his intense freak outs display a swoon-worthy softer side. In contrast, his interactions with the week’s baddie are always ice cold. No, they’re polar cold. Even when talking to Fusco, he either mocks or condescends to the pudgy detective. Even when interacting with the week’s victim, he typically assumes a veneer of insincere concern. It’s pretty clear he knows the victim will trust whatever he says because he’s done this before. In fact, it’s slightly creepy and always flags my used car salesman/pedobear alert. Seeing him mildly flirt with/worry over Carter, briefly surfaces his humanity.

The contrast between Finch and Reese’s treatment of Carter always amuses me. Although Carter is a former army interrogator, a single mother, and a hardcore cop who passed the bar, Reese treats her like … a traditional woman who needs protection; but, not as a damsel in distress. He utterly recognizes and trusts her capabilities. However, he feels she trusts too much and has too few people to professionally rely on. By contrast, Finch views Carter as a straight-up tool to use. In “Super,” I laughed when a temporarily handicapped Reese asked Finch to protect her. Instead, Finch bullies her into apprehending one of the week’s suspects.

Finch and Reese are another interesting relationship. When around Reese, Finch slightly relaxes and allows his goofiness to appear. Yet, when he interacts with Carter (or Fusco), he’s cold to the point I need Antarctica to warm me up.

I loved Burn Notice’s feeling of fun and hope. Pre-season five, Michael’s belief the CIA would recall him, kept him alive. By contrast, Reese (and Finch) have a death wish, assuming the baddies they fight will eventually kill them. In two episodes, Reese planned on sacrificing himself to protect the children he rescued. I never understand why Reese tells Carter he’ll always back her, considering his death wish.

The true difference between Burn Notice and Person of Interest takes ethics under consideration. Both Reese and Westen save innocents from danger. However, Michael does it when asked and only bugs the houses of the clearly evil dudes. By contrast, Reese clones the phones, videos the apartments and follows both the possibly guilty and the clearly guilty. Even if it’s to save my life, would I want someone sifting through my personal data without my permission? Couldn’t Reese just stalk me from afar and thwart anyone who might jump me? Honestly, he STILL videos Joss’ desk, weeks after he saved her.

Jim Caviezel is super hot, super suave and a super ass-kicker. And, DAMN, he looks good in a suit. Each week I enjoy his varying facial expressions, his velvety voice and his steel blue eyes. Likewise, I marvel at Henson’s abilities. Like Julianne Moore, she throws herself into the role, facially emoting her frustration. Her usage of all her facial musculature to convey her weekly disappointments continuously impresses me. She LOOKS like a harassed New York cop working 11-hour shifts, fighting a losing battle against police corruption.

I congratulate the costume and makeup department for dressing Carter like a cop. I have issues with cop shows like Castle or Rizzoli and Isles whose female officers display long wavy hair and three-inch heels. It isn’t practical or realistic. Person of Interest brings us back to Homicide: Life on the Street-style costuming. Each week Carter wears a ponytail, sensible shoes and unflattering suits. Unlike Think Like a Man, which pays tribute to Henson’s ability to rock form-fitting, Herve Leger bondage dresses, Person of Interest isn’t about her looks. She rocks crappy all-gray or all-tan suits with pleated fronts. And, I like that. But, I wouldn’t mind an episode with Carter rocking a kickass dress and Reese rocking his usual suits, because, well, they’re hot.

Overall, Person of Interest is Burn Notice’s darker cousin where Michael’s friends are dead, missing, or corrupt. If you ever wondered what would happen to Michael if Fiona died, Maddie disappeared, Sam stayed corrupt, and Detective Paxson never gave up (but took on some of Maddie’s personality), this is it. Unlike Michael, Reese sees his local efforts as having more importance than global ones. Person of Interest investigates what happens to people when they lose their trust (Reese, Finch) or who can’t stop trusting despite multiple betrayals (Carter).

Is one show better than the other? No. Is one more fun than the other? Technically, yes. But, Person of Interest is slowly uncovering its funny bone. Would I recommend both to fans of each show? Hell, yes.

Photo Credit: NBC Universal,CBS

16 Responses to “Is Person of Interest the new Burn Notice? – Monthly Musings”

April 24, 2012 at 12:44 PM

What do you have against Michael Emerson? While you mention Finch a few brief times in the article, the whole thing reads as if Henson and Caviezel are the two leads, and Finch is some kind of plot element. And Emerson is never even mentioned by name!

But from my point of view, Emerson is the star of this show. He and Henson could act rings around Caviezel, who barely manages two expressions each week. And Emerson has more screen time than Henson, although admittedly far less than Caviezel, who looks good in a suit the same way a mannequin would.

Finch also has plenty of humanizing backstory–his friendship with his former business partner, which he struggles to maintain through the man’s son. All the times he’s forced to go out in the field and be an unlikely hero are much more interesting to me than Reese spying on people and kicking ass, which he can do in his sleep (and often looks like he is).

Carter’s backstory–she has a son, she’s an honest cop in a mostly dishonest department, and the fact that she’s going against both her department, the FBI, and the CIA when she helps Finch & Reese–is also interesting.

Even Fusco, the bad cop now forced to be a good cop while pretending now to be a bad cop–shows depth, like a recent show where he sees a man set free from prison due to efforts Fusco contributed to.

Reese, who has this mysterious past of being trained as an operative, killing lots of people, and having a girlfriend who I think is now dead, is probably the least interesting out of the four for me. Especially since his fighting skills are so over-the-top idealized that there’s never any suspense at all when he takes on one, two, three, or a whole room full of bad guys.

April 24, 2012 at 10:13 PM

Hey Scott –

While the core Finch-Reese relationship intrigues me, the side Finch-Carter relationship intrigues me moreso.

On the score of violence, here’s another Burn Notice vs. POI comparison. In the pilot, Michael has absolutely no qualms dispatching of his enemies while escaping an international area. However, once home, he only uses gun violence when absolutely necessary. By contrast, who _hasn’t_ Reese knee-capped in POI?

April 25, 2012 at 4:46 AM

Probably my favorite new series of the season, which was a real shock considering how little love I have for Abrams’s other offerings as either EP or director.

Even if all you envision above had occurred to Michael Westen, the universe beyond him, his family, and his friends would still be far sunnier than the one John Reese occupies. In Burn Notice, the CIA Michael is consulting for and still hoping to rejoin remains a mostly benign organization that protects the U.S. and its interests. Even before Reese left his CIA, the Agency was conducting unlimited assassinations, kidnappings, and various other violations of civil liberties, often on American citizens, often on U.S. soil, and had co-opted illegal drug imports on a large scale to help finance its operations. Person of Interest‘s CIA operates more like Nikita‘s Division. Carter and Fusco’s NYPD is also heavily compromised by HR, which will hang honest cops out in the cold to die if it fills their coffers.

I’ve loved Jim Caviezel’s work ever since Frequency. He’s able to do so much while doing nothing. I think he’s done a fine job here in an emotionally muted role, especially with his eyes, while his face will often barely move. No complaints about Emerson, Henson, Chapman, or Colantoni either.

I disagree that Reese’s concern for the victim of the week is insincere. I think he does view them as good people worth protecting (when they’re not the killer), just that he has no business trying to connect with them on an emotional level, since he is not worth saving. In “Cura Te Ipsum,” his rapport with Tillman (Linda Cardellini) was just as intense and meaningful as it is with Carter. Unsurprisingly, that episode was written by Denise Thé, who was one of the staff writers on TSCC and Medium.

Not a death wish so much as fatalism. Reese and Finch will do everything they can to survive and be victorious, but with an unlimited supply of bad guys, their numbers will come up some day.

You’re meant to be disturbed by the rampant abuse of privacy in this little vigilante show; it’s certainly not presented as a good thing. But beyond Reese’s stalking and wiretapping, the backstory of The Machine informs and colors the entire series. Remember when it tagged Reese as a possible threat to its sysadmin?

Both Reese’s relationship with Cara and Finch’s with Nathan had me wondering: were they just best friends or something more?

I prefer that Reese is an unstoppable, ultra competent operative with skills commensurate to his background, as it’s something of a rarity these days (Christopher Chance didn’t even make it to season 2, but Michael Westen keeps plugging away). Considering the odds Reese is often up against, and the paucity of useful intelligence, he has to be that good to actually be able to win. And if it’s not the :54 minute mark, he has lost a fight or otherwise failed often enough.

I liked that the pilot showed that Michael is capable of killing his enemies. I always assumed that he’s more reticent to leave bodies lying around since then because he’s unable to leave Miami, and all his enemies and former friends, as well as those two FBI agents, know where he is. This makes it all the more meaningful and badass when he actually does execute someone, as he did with Strickler to protect Fiona.

On the other hand, I do love Reese’s signature kneecapping.

April 25, 2012 at 7:47 AM

Hey Ryan,

Good to see you like POI as much as I do. Note: I didn’t say Reese insincerely cares for his protectees, I said he assumes an insincere veneer when first meeting them. Agreed, he cares for his victims and identifies personality quirks that he likes i.e. “she’s spunky.” But, when he makes first contact under cover, his deliberately bland face and too agreeable nature just creeps me out. If a guy comes into my office and tips over a cup of coffee in a too-obvious way and doesn’t look facially apologetic, I’m kicking him out. Likewise, if a too-handsome guy follows me into an alcove at a support group and says he experienced the same thing in that too-creepy way, I’m calling the police.

I find it hard to believe his marks buy his first-contact veneer. Whenever Michael Westen goes under cover I believe the character he creates. He manages to mix his sincerity with his cover, while Reese hides the sincerity that would make me believe his under cover character. It’s only when talking to Carter, flash-backing to his past relationships, or when he finally reveals himself to his protectees that his emotions come through.

Yes, Reese’s ass-kicking is awesome. At the same time, it makes sense that he could easily overpower 4-5 men (although sometimes it seems laughable). He’s trained to go against people with similar skills. So, when he encounters untrained teenage mobster wannabees or rich stalkers, it’s still easier for him to overcome them. I wonder what would happen if everyone trained officers in inner city areas with more than intermediate self-defense and weapons-handling classes, but the level of CIA defense techniques touted on movies and film ;)

Another interesting BN/POI difference – Reese (or the case’s I’ve watched) typically deals with white collar Manhattan (lawyers, doctors, traders, etc.), while Michael deals with more of the lower-class.

April 25, 2012 at 10:16 PM

Sorry I misapprehended your original meaning; I was fairly tired last night but determined to get my comment written out.

I agree that a well-adjusted, well-rested person would be creeped out in the situations you mentioned, but found Tillman to be anything but. I adored that episode in particular both for the job Cardellini did, and how Caviezel portrayed his complete understanding and identification with the broken, driven person she had become.

Both shows involve crimes from all over the spectrum, and involve sympathetic or colorful victims to match the particular circumstances. Since I’ve watched all of Person of Interest, I can tell you that they don’t hesitate to mix things up. Off the top of my head, I found the hairdresser, the barback, and the public schoolteacher to be quite memorable, and even the day trader came from a lower class background. And though she was a member of an elite class, I loved the fixer and hope they continue to bring her back in future seasons.

April 25, 2012 at 12:18 PM

Your monthly musings just perfectly covered two of the best shows on TV. Along with “Justified” I consider the three to be the very best of the Action/Adventure group and it is difficult to rate which is number #1. Think it varies from week-to-week. What is also of importance, “Burn Notice” continues to be excellent after several seasons, “Justified” just completed an outstanding third season, and “Person of Interest” is soon going to complete a first season, and has been renewed. If all television were this good, and the executives/writers behind the shows were as talented as these folks–I would never get anything else accomplished beyond watching the tube and clearing the DVR-LOL.

April 25, 2012 at 9:36 PM

Thanks, BM! After last year, I almost wrote TV off. However, I’m increasingly happy with TV this season, especially for the Spring.

April 25, 2012 at 6:38 PM

I completely agree with your assessment of these two shows. However, I would say, based on less than one season’s episodes, that POI is the superior offering. The complexity of the relationships and the layering of characterizations by all four actors on POI is remarkable and deeply satisfying. I find that I can easily follow Burn Notice while reading a magazine or preparing dinner. Not so with POI: I have to devote all my attention, heart and soul to this great new drama.

I agree with you in finding that Reese’s fierce and frankly wierd obsession with Carter is the humanizing core of the show. I started to watch POI for Michael Emerson, whom I loved on Lost. I was hooked within a week by Jim Caviezel’s charismatic (and dstunningly hot) performance as Reese. And I was thrilled to find that Taraji P. Henson was on the show. I also like what Kevin Chapman does with the lesser part of Fusco, he makes that dirty cop into a troubled soul one really cares about.

Interestingly to me, the three characters who are undergoing life-altering moral crises during the arc of this season are Reese, Carter, and Fusco.

Reese is clawing his way back from perdition to find a new version of his humanity.

Carter is having her old views of right and wrong shredded by her association with the vigilante gang. She is now completely on the wrong side of the law, hiding out in plain sight among her corrup cop colleagues, even as she breaks the law routinely.

Fusco is trying to recover his original commitment to doing good, even as Reese pushes him further into the corrupt pit of viper cops.

In contrast, Finch had his great personal crisis many years ago, when he invented the machine (if it actually exists) and was injured. He is the unmoving center of the POI universe and as such is much less interesting to watch overall. Not a knock on Michael Emerson, who is brilliant, but an honest assessment of what the writers have given him to work with. The story truly belongs to Reese and to the two compromised cops whose interactions with him are the warm beating heart of the show.

April 26, 2012 at 8:26 AM

Thanks, Carol! I’m absolutely obsessed with the Carter-Reese relationship. I wish I knew why he’s so drawn to her. Despite the flirtation, I don’t feel a romantic attachment (although I’d love to see that develop). And, I don’t feel a fraternal interest either. However, he seems drawn to her like she’s his other half. Hopefully, they’ll explain it. At the same time I don’t want them to so I can enjoy the unexplained mystery of their relationship.

And, while I’m not as interested in Finch and Reese, I won’t lie, they’re clearly already working a full-blown bromantic relationship. But, after a point, I can only write so many pieces on bromance ;)

However, I do feel sorry for Carter. She’s a moral and ethical cop who is slowly listening more to her morals than her ethics. In a way, this could blow up in her face. In the name of good, she’s leaving fingerprints all over the place with un-sealing sealed files, etc. While she saves people, it isn’t legal. By contrast, Fusco kept his blatantly corrupt dealings on the DL and his old crew is basically gone. Ironically, he doesn’t have the tangible markers of his past misdeeds while Carter probably left a trail of her current deeds. I could potentially see her getting drummed out while Fusco stays.

As a fan of BN and POI, I won’t rank one over the other, even if BN’s energy felt faded last season. I enjoy them equally! And, I’m glad that we have a season of such awesome TV!

April 27, 2012 at 7:15 AM

An, if you don’t already watch every episode of Person of Interest, be sure to catch the one that aired last night, and probably the rest of the season as well. Reese’s backstory really blew up in a big way.

April 27, 2012 at 7:17 AM

I already caught it. It destroyed my Reese-Carter theory, but it was a lot of fun. I planned on writing on it. But … no time!

April 28, 2012 at 6:22 PM

What was your Reese-Carter theory?

April 28, 2012 at 8:04 PM

I had a couple Reese-Carter theories which I reference in this week’s POI review:

I thought Reese turned to Carter because he needed a moral compass and because she reminded him of a more trusting version of himself before CIA betrayals turned him. “MN” partially confirmed it, but it also refuted it. This week, rather than treating Carter as a person to save, he looked at her more as a tool to use.

I’ll let the editors know about the typos.

April 28, 2012 at 1:46 PM


You spelled Caviezel (you wrote an ‘a’ before the l) and Henson (you wrote an ‘e’ before the second ‘n’)wrong in the body of the column.

May 3, 2012 at 5:37 PM

I agree with your assessment on Reese and Carter. I don’t like the way Reese is treating Carter calling her an asset. There was a time when I thought Reese sincerely cared about Carter based on these lines: ” you’re not alone”; “your moral compass is pointed in the right direction”; “there are certain people this world can’t afford to lose” (referring to Carter.) “Good morning detective, did you miss me”. to Finch “How is Carter is she OK, keep an eye on her for me”. Now she’s just a tool to be used like Fusco or are we going to be surprised in season two that Reese does have buried feelings for Carter.

May 3, 2012 at 8:06 PM

Don’t like burn notice. bad acting. POI way better!!!!!!

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