Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Women of Interest

Taraji P Henson as Person of
's Joss Carter
It's entirely possible that I could wind up sounding like a total ass in this post. So, allow me to preemptively apologize for any idiocy that may result. The reason for my apology is this; I'm a white male about to write about the state of women characters on television. Yeahhhhhh, I'm THAT guy.

I was thinking back to the 1990's the other day. I was just sitting in my car, lacing up my Air Jordans, checking my undercut in the mirror and putting in my cassette of Please, Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em and it occurred to me that the 1990's had probably more well-drawn, interesting female characters on TV than we do right now, twenty years later.

Don't believe me? Let's list a few shows from that decade with some iconic women characters: Roseanne, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, My So-Called Life, Daria, Homicide: Life on the Street, Ellen, The Powerpuff Girls (it counts), Xena. And, yeah, there was also Melrose Place, but at least there were options, and you didn't have to look hard.

Look, I know that people could comment below more than a few shows that feature great female characters; I know they're out there. But I'd like to talk about a show with some solid characters that maybe won't be one of the expected ones.

I was surprised while watching a simple little network thriller the other night at how much it provides a mainstream audience with a bevy of interesting unusual female characters. That show is Person of Interest. For anyone out there who doesn't watch the show, it debuted in 2011, the brainchild of JJ Abrams and Jonathan Nolan (Christopher Nolan's brother and co-writer). In the series, reclusive billionaire genius Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson) recruits a traumatized former CIA agent named Reese (Jim Caviezel) for a personal mission. After 9/11, Finch built a machine for the government that uses the information gleaned from omnipresent surveillance to predict behaviour. The government was interested in only stopping terrorist attacks, but the machine predicted ordinary crimes as well. However, the government was not interested in these crimes, and didn't pursue them. Finch and Reese now pursue the machine's prediction of these crimes throughout New York, stopping murders before they happen.

Root (Amy Acker) and Finch (Michael Emerson)
It's a goofy premise, but it taps into society's fears post-9/11 in an interesting way, and the two central characters are well-drawn and well-played. Emerson is great to watch, while the effortless badassery of Caviezel's character is something to behold. It started off fairly generically, with the customary high-concept and shallow character development. Over time, however, they've constructed several interesting mythologies inside the show, and in its current third season, they regularly deliver some of the most exciting, twisty and plain old fun hours of TV you can get on a major network.

And the women on the show are great. First there's Taraji P. Henson as Detective Joss Carter. She began the show as Finch and Reese's nemesis of sorts. In a similar way to Lt. Gerard on The Fugitive, Carter wasn't bad, but she was a dedicated cop. And her case was tracking down Reese. But she quickly became an ally, and from there her character really became interesting. She's a moral woman, smart, professional and yet the series doesn't fall all over itself classifying her as "strong." The "Strong Woman" has become a trope in TV and movies ever since Buffy and Xena came along. Except usually they aren't written as well and come off as humourless pin-ups (anyone remember Salt?). Carter simply is really good at her job. This season has given her a major subplot involving her investigation of a network of corrupt cops, seen her demoted back to uniform, and followed her single-minded quest to destroy said network. Ever the moral centre of the show, she is now willing to start crossing some lines to achieve her goals. Cliched? You bet. This is an action series, not The Wire. But that kind of storyline doesn't get handed to female characters very often.

Then there's Shaw, the latest recruit to Finch and Reese's team. Played by Sarah Shahi, she's almost a parody of the "Strong Woman" trope I mentioned earlier. Like Reese, she's a former special operative for the government, recruited after she was betrayed by her handlers. What makes her interesting is that, far from going for the sexy bad ass Strong Woman, the series depicts her as a borderline sociopath with no people skills and little personal loyalty. Yes, there are times when this is played for laughs, but it's just as often used to illustrate how troubling the whole concept of "lethal special operative" actually would be. Shaw is a reflection of the Reese character, except without a sense of guilt or desire to redeem himself. Her journey will be towards some sort of emotional growth, of that I have no doubt, but so far she's taken only minute steps, and the series still hasn't gone the quick and easy way with her.

Finally we have Root, played by Amy Acker. Like Finch, she's a skilled computer hacker, and she is obsessed with the machine, seeing it not as a tool but as a living, sentient being. She's been portrayed as both villain and ally on the show, and it's unknown at this point exactly how crazy she is. She's the least developed on the series, but this mostly due to her being an enigmatic character to begin with, one whose motives we're not supposed to fully comprehend. At this point, she appears to be in direct communication with the machine, and is on some sort of separate mission of her own. Having a female antagonist that imposing is also rare, and Acker makes the most of Root's innate mystery.

Sarah Shahi as Shaw

Once again, I'm not saying this is show is feminist manifesto or anything. I'm not even saying that the series is anything more than action hi-jinks. But this is a genre that is traditionally dominated by men, both in front of and behind the camera. On the production side, Person of Interest has three women as producers, as well as three women who regularly write for the show. I think this accounts for the way the female characters are worked into the story. And in this season especially, the show has become a true ensemble. It's not just the Finch and Reese show anymore. And adding more women to the cast has made the series much, much more interesting and distinct than it had been previously.

Give the show a shot, especially if you want to see women truly a part of the action.

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