Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Big Picture: The Small Screen

Kevin Chapman as Det. Lionel Fusco on CBS's Person of Interest.

With the network TV season winding down, those critics who like to compile list of actors who ought to be nominated for Emmys but never are should set aside some space for Kevin Chapman. Chapman plays the New York City police detective Lionel Fusco on CBS’s Person of Interest, where he serves as sidekick to Jim Caviezel’s Reese. A former CIA assassin who broke down after he was set up for execution by his own people, Reese got a new lease on life courtesy of Finch (Michael Emerson), a computer genius who set up a comprehensive surveillance system, “The Machine,” for the U.S. government in the wake of 9/11. Finch – who, like Reese, got off the grid by bring mistaken for dead by the powers that be – now has second thoughts about building that system, and to atone for it, he has arranged for The Machine to feed him information about people who may be in danger but who are regarded as too insignificant by the government to be worthy of its concern, so that the super-capable violent operator Reese can help them out, Equalizer-style.

Fusco was introduced in the first episode as a low-level member of a powerful, murderously corrupt gang operating inside the NYPD. Compared to Caviezel, with his tall, lean build and sculptured profile, Chapman looks as if he’d been molded out of common clay and taken out of the kiln too early; even in a suit, it’s easy to imagine him holding a rock and scratching his head while staring up at the Monolith. Reese, who took control over him after Fusco screwed up his assignment to kill him, could have easily executed Fusco and not lost any sleep over it, but instead, he kept him around to use as a spy, backup support, and chew toy. In the early episodes, Fusco – who, to steal a line from Mystery Science Theater 3000, looked as if he couldn’t outwit a staple gun – kept plotting to outsmart his keepers, and it seemed a very safe bet that he wouldn’t make it to the end of the show’s first season alive.

But Fusco gradually came to like the feeling of helping people, of being one of the good guys again. (His redemption arc included a scene in which he saved a potential murder victim by throwing himself in the killer’s way and taking a bullet to the ass.) He also got smarter, not just an unusual development in the life of any TV series character but a much-needed rebuke to the trend identified by a character on Joss Whedon’s Angel, who pointed out that when someone in pop culture turns evil their I.Q. always seems to rise exponentially. He’s not the show’s officially designated voice of sanity, always up for a dry wisecrack about how crazy his fellow vigilante heroes are, but solidly devoted to them. In that, he’s practically the show’s true audience representative.

Michael Emerson and Jim Caviezel in Person of Interest.
Back in the days of three or four networks and Neilson ratings boxes, part of the standard knock on series entertainment was the static nature of the characters and situations. Whether out of laziness or terror that the seemingly satisfied viewers would abandon ship if anything on their favorites changed much, few shows risked the kind of exciting, whiplash storylines and real character development that distinguished the first season of the undercover-lawman thriller Wiseguy, which premiered back in 1987. A lot has changed since then, but some shows get more credit than they deserve in this department: the finale of Mad Men mostly confirms that the show’s message is that hairstyles and fashions change, but people don’t grow. Person of Interest gives it heroes and villains more credit than that, and it also gets along without offering viewers the satisfaction of feeling smug toward people born too early to know that smoking and sexism are strictly for poopyheads. This show is set in the present, and engaged in the national – international? – anxiety about the growing power of the surveillance state. In its sophisticated pulpiness, it’s a fit successor to Wiseguy, which also joined a jaundiced attitude toward official power with an honest idealistic belief in a few isolated individuals’ ability to do some good and make a difference.

Like many smart but unassuming pop culture breakthroughs, Wiseguy was mostly critically ignored during its first season, then began to attract some love from the press after it had developed a word-of-mouth cult and then dipped in quality. Person of Interest, which has been on since 2011, hasn’t generated the reputation it deserves, but then it hasn’t dipped, either. It keeps raising the stakes, so that the heroes are now the resistance force in a secret war being led, from the other side, by a dessicated old British intelligence hand (John Nolan) who sees himself as an idealist: he doesn’t think the human race can be trusted to be left to its own devices for a second, and he’s not above staging the odd false flag attack to keep the machinery turning. The heroes have also been joined by Amy Acker as a hacker-assassin who thinks The Machine is the (female) voice of God and whose flirtatiousness toward the other woman member of the team, Shaw (Sarah Shahi), takes on the scale of a grand passion when Shaw is abducted by the bad guys. Like the other cast members, Acker plainly enjoys the challenge of playing someone whose motives and moral intelligence are fluid and constantly evolving. (Her character was introduced, a couple of seasons back, as a scary, psychotic villain.)

Danny Pudi, Alison Brie, Paget Brewster and Joel McHale in the new season of Community.

Fifteen years ago, when The Sopranos and Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer were the best shows on TV, being on cable or having a geekish aura were seen as impediments to being taken seriously at Emmy time. Nowadays, a show as smart as Person of Interest is more likely to be underrated by viewers who assume that a genre show on a network like CBS must be a boring throwback to the days of Quinn Martin. An old pro like Martin would find a marketable template and use it stamp out show after show, the only trace of individual personality being a signature gimmick like the Roman-numeral chapter headings that used to appear on Martin’s crime shows after each commercial break. Martin would have scarcely known what to make of someone like Dan Harmon, who developed his chops and first made his name with short, spoofy little shows that were “distributed” via live clubs and the Internet, got the go-ahead to make the sitcom Community for NBC, turned out three low-rated, critically acclaimed, increasingly “personal” seasons before getting fired, got rehired to make one last season for the network after the fourth season created by other hands was a bust, and is now, following the show’s network cancellation, making a sixth season for Yahoo’s Internet channel.

It’s hard to say whether Harmon has come full circle. The current Community looks about as good as the NBC version did; though there are times when you’re aware that there used to be more extras on the campus. The show had lost two of its original cast members, Chevy Chase and Danny Glover, by the time it left NBC, and a third, Yvette Nicole Brown, declined the opportunity to follow Harmon to the distant reaches of online streaming. (The current cast is supplemented by Keith David, occupying the all-important grumpy old guy position, and Paget Brewster.) And though it’s arguable whether being on the Internet actually enhances the show’s cultish aura, Yahoo! Screen isn’t exactly Hulu or Netflix. It feels smaller, but the show is still funny, and funny in the distinctive, idiosyncratic way of the NBC-Harmon Community. Its eviction from broadcast network TV definitely makes it feel as if Harmon has been granted even less responsibility to try to court a mass audience, and he’s taken full advantage of the chance to make the current season more personal, geekish, and cerebral than ever.

Keith David and Jim Rash, with Joel McHale (background)
It’s also self-critical and self-questioning, something that it has in common with Person of Interest, a show about vigilante heroes that is deeply wary about the idea of appointing oneself entitled to use violence to enforce justice. In this season, Community’s central conflict is between Abed (Danny Pudi), the film student who communicates exclusively through pop culture references and screenwriting tropes, and Paget Brewster’s Frankie, who implores everyone to grow up and live in the real world. Some hardcore fans may find it unsettling that Frankie is never presented as a killjoy or a scold; she’s a little stiff and humorless, but the show treats her as if she were a dispenser of good advice, which she clearly is. The show’s characters can only grow up so far, or they wouldn’t be Dam Harmon characters, but the current season of Community may make you wonder if even Dan Harmon – who got into screenwriting through a side door, when an independent comic book he’d co-created was optioned for a movie version that never got made – has gotten a little sick of the dominance of nerd culture, or at least of its infantilizing effect.

There was a time when comic books and certain areas of TV and movies were a place where offbeat talents could delve into their personal obsessions while working under the radar of the major cultural gatekeepers and the commercial mainstream. Now, people like Whedon are hired to make enormously expensive superhero movies, which they’re only allowed to imbue with a small part of their personalities; they have to concentrate on laying track for the dozen or so other movies designed to share plot elements with theirs, and make sure that the characters are consistent from movie to movie, so any personal touches stick out like a healthy thumb on a corpse. I don’t know what Harmon gets paid by Yahoo!, or how many people see his current version of Community, though I know that neither the money nor the eyeballs compare to what Whedon gets to make Marvel superhero movies. But Harmon’s show is Harmon’s show.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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