How to Handle the Big Bad: Person of Interest

There are a lot of shows out there whose arcs depend on an ongoing conspiracy. Monk did this with the six-fingered man (although the series thankfully wrapped up its conspiracy with a classic mystery explanation). The Mentalist took its conspiracy way too far. Castle used an underlying conspiracy for Beckett's mother's murder (paid off in Season 6). NCIS occasionally has one, but Bellisario, at least, was too wise to let a conspiracy run his seasons.

And Person of Interest does it. I don't mean the Machine, but the ongoing conspiracy involving the police-mob-government. (Spoilers of Season 1 below.)

Person of Interest makes it work. In his post about the show, Eugene remarks, "There are a couple of Moriartys, but even here Jonathan Nolan has them driven by straightforward goals and comprehensible motivations. No insane or insanely omniscient antagonists here."

The head at the front has a face: Enrico Colantoni as Elias!
Nolan has also, as Eugene remarks, given his conspiracy a face: Enrico Colantoni. This was such a remarkably intelligent choice, I literally applauded the episode that revealed him as the big bad. Way to go, guys! Colantoni is a reasonably well-known character actor. He has great range from sweet-tempered to unexpectedly dangerous. And he looks right. He have his character, Elias, a kind of hunched walk that is reminiscent of classic mobsters without being too cliche. Perfect!

Unfortunately, failure to provide a "face" is exactly the mistake that far too many directors, script-writers (and composition students) make. They keep the identity of the big bad (thesis) hidden until it grows out of proportion, becoming so nebulous and scary that when he (it) does show up, he has to be either completely round the bend (Sherlock) or a "just kidding, actually, this guy is a front for the REAL big bad" (one of the seasons of The Mentalist; as stated in an earlier post, I tend to ignore the Red John episodes on The Mentalist completely).

In comparison, let's look at how much more effective it is to introduce a "face" immediately:

1. X-Files. As Eugene has pointed out, the big bad aren't the aliens; they are the government conspirators. Deep Throat (the lovable Jerry Hardin) and Cigarette Smoking Man (the excellent William B. Davis) were introduced early in the series and became instant fan faves.

2. Star Trek: TNG, Stargate, Stargate: Atlantis: Here's the bad guy. Fight him! Win!! Now, that's good television.

3. Star Wars IV, V, VI: Darth Vader (I mention this in comparison to I, II, and III in which the bad guy is a fuzzy guy on a screen--who cares? Even a heavy-breathing bad guy in a mask is more interesting.)

4. Columbo: An unfair example since we know who the big bad is from the first minute. But it is effective!

5. Leverage ended Season 4 with a "surprise" face BUT it was a face fans had seen before and very nicely paid off an earlier season. (However, the "surprise" barely made it--again, too much build up can cause an ending to fall flat.)

There's a reason why, when Stoker turned his novel into a play, Dracula took center stage. Horror writers like King can hold off on showing readers the big bad because reader actually can imagine the unimaginable. If the villain MUST be seen, he should be seen immediately.

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