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TELEVISION REVIEW

‘Person of Interest’ lacks interesting personalities

Michael Emerson (left) and Jim Caviezel star in the CBS crime drama “Person of Interest.’’ Michael Emerson (left) and Jim Caviezel star in the CBS crime drama “Person of Interest.’’ (Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 22, 2011

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Before I watched the pilot episode, “Person of Interest’’ was a show of interest. This is the series that CBS has selected to fill its plum Thursday at 9 p.m. timeslot, the old home of former mega-hit “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.’’ Also, it stars Michael Emerson, whose crazy-googly eyes as Ben Linus were the quintessence of “Lost’’ at points in the show’s run. And it’s produced by J.J. Abrams, who, despite last season’s flimsy “Undercovers,’’ is nonetheless responsible for a lot of great TV, including “Lost’’ and “Alias.’’

What’s more, “Person of Interest’’ has the potential to be charged with post-9/11 politics and paranoia. The idea is that Emerson’s software billionaire, Finch, created a pattern-recognition system after 9/11 called “the machine,’’ which collects enough data off cellphones and street cameras to predict crimes. Now he’s not using the machine to find terrorists; he’s after everyday criminals. His crazy-googly eyes? They’re watching you, tracking any unacceptable inclinations you might have. “Person of Interest’’ shares juicy conceptual similarities to Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,’’ which was based on Philip K. Dick, except there’s no sci-fi veneer. Our private information is really out there right now - our likes, dislikes, images, locations - and ready to be used and misused.

But the resulting show, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 4, is a real disappointment. It’s a saggy, numbed-out crime drama, with a pair of leads - Emerson and Jim Caviezel - whose quasi-mystical affect fails to pull you into their characters. This isn’t a nexus of TV talent and cultural suspicion so much as a turgid spin on the old-school procedural, with rote crimes-of-the-week, the familiar streets of New York City, and, of course, a pair of crazy-googly eyes.

Caviezel plays a former CIA operative named Reese who becomes Finch’s go-to worker bee. Like Charlie on “Charlie’s Angels,’’ Finch gives Reese his weekly assignment, which includes the name of a person involved in an upcoming violent crime, but not the exact nature of the crime. The person of interest might be the perp or the victim; it’s up to Reese to find out. So Reese insinuates himself into the life of the person - tonight, it’s a prosecutor played by Natalie Zea from “Justified’’ - and he uses his government-bred skills to piece together the puzzle. When we meet Reese, he is a despairing street person wracked with guilt after failing to prevent the murder of a loved one. Finch is trying to be his savior and reignite his passion for justice.

Emerson is, essentially, playing Ben Linus all over again, with a series of neurotic, existential-crisis facial expressions, halting line delivery, and I-know-more-than-you attitude. He’s fine, if one-dimensional. Caviezel, best known for playing Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ,’’ is not fine. His acting is far too glum and arrogant to hold the show together. He talks in arch, “Dirty Harry’’ whispers, but he has no charisma. It’s a frustratingly interior performance. I couldn’t decide whether he hadn’t found his character yet, or whether he’d found his character but just wasn’t going to share him with us. He’s a cipher. As “Person of Interest’’ leans heavily on Caviezel and Emerson and their conversations about the crime at hand, it seems to sink into a storytelling abyss.

Taraji P. Henson is also in the cast, as a cop who’s watching Reese, and she may help fill the void created by Caviezel and Emerson. In the pilot, she’s peripheral, but perhaps she’ll become the insider member of Finch’s team. The show desperately needs some electricity, and maybe she can bring it. Right now, though, instead of the provocative Google Earth-era crime drama it could be, “Person of Interest’’ is an anemic, characterless slog.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.

PERSON OF INTEREST Starring: Jim Caviezel, Michael Emerson, Taraji P. Henson

On: CBS, Channel 4

Time: Tonight, 9-10