One of CBS’ highest-profile new projects for the 2011 premiere season is Person of Interest, a thriller with some very familiar names on both sides of the camera. Does it live up to months of lofty expectations? Read on to find out.

Person of Interest starts in a surprisingly tender way, with the first of a series of flashbacks between mystery man John Reese (James Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ) and his wife. Fast-forward to modern day New York City, where the same man sits on an empty subway car, cradling a bottle of rot-gut and desperately needing a friend and a shave. When a group of uppity gangsters give him the business, Reese dispatches all four instantly, gaining the attention of the police and a shadowy figure.

Enter Mr. Finch, (Michael Emerson, Lost) a mysterious, eccentric billionaire who offers Reese a job and a mission. Finch has access to the U.S. government’s most powerful data collection tool, a supercomputer that can not only analyze crime but predict it.

Finch steals information on low-profile victims-to-be before they become targets, on the basis that the higher-ups don’t care about anything that isn’t a 9-11 sized threat. Finch assigns Reese to observe and protect their first citizen, a young ADA (Natalie Zea, Justified) who may soon be the target of an assassination .

Throughout the pilot we’re given clues to the backstory of both Reese and Finch. The former is an ex-CIA agent who became dead to the world after the death of his wife. Finch helped build the (mostly) fictional surveillance network made possible by the Patriot Act after the September 11th attacks. The tragedy gave Finch a purpose for spending his billions for the common good, and he saw an opportunity when the more typical crimes being predicted by his machine were being ignored. He’s determined to be a more benevolent version of Big Brother. Both of them are presumed dead.

The action quickly ramps up as Reese tails his assignment and her would-be assignments. Reese tackles underground weapons dealers, mobsters and dirty cops -and all that’s before the twist. Along the way the audience is treated to monologues on the all-pervasive nature of modern surveillance and the morality of using it. Detectives Carter (Taraji P. Henson, I Can Do Bad All By Myself) and Fusco (Kevin Chapman, Rescue Me) have their own reasons for investigating Reese.

The first thing that most viewers will notice about Person of Interest is its undeniable and certainly deliberate similarity to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Everything points to the inspiration: characters, themes, atmosphere, even the music. It comes by it honestly – producer Jonathan Nolan worked with big brother Christopher writing for Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight and The Dark Night Rises. Other big names in the producer chairs are frequent partners J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk.

All that said, the new show feels like it’s taking the best bits out of Batman and using them to tell a more realistic action story, instead of simply repackaging the essential parts of the Nolan films. The central idea of predictive crime analysis is no longer the stuff of  Minority Report sci-fi, and something similar may enter the world of law enforcement very soon. Person of Interest dodges the privacy debate by putting it in the hands of invisible vigilantes (again, see The Dark Knight) who are more of a somber A-Team than an Orwellian threat.

Caviezel hasn’t been seen in a regular TV role since The Prisoner two years ago. He returns on a high note, painting Reese as a broken, conflicted man with both an intense desire for justice and a hesitancy to use his lethal skills. The combination makes for a calm, calculated fighter who still comes off as sympathetic. His zen-like fighting (and wonderfully sparse dialogue) is at least as good as any B-action flick you’ve seen in the last year.

Emerson provides the counterpoint as a cold, calculating mastermind. His mysterious connections allow him an enormous amount of digital power that he feels a responsibility to use for good. The audience doesn’t know too much about Finch, and his past work with the government will likely be a major plot point in the first season. Emerson is admirably restrained, but those looking for a repeat of his energetic performances on Lost may feel a little let down.

Fans wanting no-holds-barred action will not be left wanting. Stunts and fight scenes in Person of Interest approach and at times surpass 24 in the realm of mostly-real action sequences, and the results are absolutely satisfying. It’ll be interesting to see if the writers and producers can keep up this level of intensity for more than a few episodes – they’ll certainly be worth a watch to find out.

The pilot features some genuinely surprising twists (much appreciated from a jaded TV reviewer) that will keep you guessing up to the last few minutes. The creepy themes of distrust and complacency make for an excitingly different mood, which are accentuated by the regular use of CCTV angles and “bugged” audio.

Person of Interest is one of the most exciting new shows on broadcast TV this year. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking thriller with solid action and storytelling, look no further – especially if you’re a fan of Nolan’s flavor of caped vigilante.

Person of Interest airs Thursdays @9pm on CBS

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