Flipping Channels: Did CBS Lose Its True Person of Interest?

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CBS has ascended to top-dog status among broadcast networks through a careful strategy of maximizing predictable programs that earn critical scorn (at best) and viewer acclaim. From CSI and Criminal Minds to Survivor (whatever this year's emphasis might be) and Big Brother to The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men, no one ever accused a CBS show of deviating from whatever formula works.

Which is why it's been stunning to see The Eye make bold moves with two cornerstone programs in midseason. During the same week CBS took huge, potentially unpopular steps with two highly popular shows, and one has already generated an online firestorm.

The death of Joss Carter (superbly played by Taraji P. Henson) on Person of Interest hasn't gone down well in some circles, notably among black viewers. Henson brought a mix of elegance, integrity and resourcefulness to her character, who was determined to expose the corrupt element within the NYPD known as "HR." Carter had already endured the loss of a close friend and lover, survived a demotion, and outwitted previous attempts at permanently silencing her.

But her death on the Nov. 19 episode, while a marvelous move in terms of plotting, hasn't been universally applauded. In fact, Henson has been doing some post-episode diplomatic work, explaining that she knew on the front end her character had two, at best three years within the story line — and that while she felt sad to see Carter killed, she loved working on the program and understood the creative necessity for taking that plot step.

That hasn't satisifed the legions of viewers who complain — rightly — that there's not exactly a surplus of strong, positive black female characters on network TV. And now here's CBS killing off one of them.

Still, that sets up an exceptional revenge finale to the three-part arc billed as "Endgame" on the Nov. 27 episode (WTVF-Channel 5, 9 p.m.). Reese (Jim Caviezel) will display a side of his personality that has always been present, but before has been muted by his efforts to help others. Now that he's on a vigilante crusade, all bets are off.

Whether the death of Carter ultimately helps or hurts Person of Interest, it is the type of shocker rarely seen on a show in mid-season. Usually, producers and writers either do it at year's end to propel interest for a new season, or at the start of a final season to provide a hook through the year.

Likewise, The Mentalist opted to conclude the five-year plus campaign by Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) to find and eliminate serial killer Red John on last night's episode. Over its tenure, Jane's search of Red John affected everything on the program, even though the show would still have its murder-of-the-week routinely solved. Jane evolved into a tougher, more cynical and embittered fellow throughout his quest, and by its end had become often unsympathetic.

Now the program takes a whole new direction with its first post-John episode next Sunday (9 p.m. approximate time, depending on whether NFL games run long). The show jumps ahead two years, as the California Bureau of Investigation — which has employed Jane as a consultant — is blown apart by infiltration from a rogue police unit. (Sounds like it's Person of Interest that should be filing theft charges.)

Jane's colleagues Lisbon (Robin Tunney), Rigsby (Owain Yeoman), Cho (Tim Kang) and Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti) have been reassigned. Plus Jane is no longer working for law enforcemen, and will be in a far different situation as the show opens. What happens from there will keep viewers guessing, and possibly put enough new energy and appeal into The Mentalist for it to last a couple more seasons — something that is currently very much undecided.

Whatever else might be said about CBS's shows, there's undeniable risk in making these kinds of changes to established programs. TV audiences are historically resistant to big changes, new faces and fresh characters, and both Person of Interest and The Mentalist have rabid followings that aren't reluctant to express their displeasure (especially online) over moves they dislike.

The Mentalist got burned with its fake killing of "Red John" storyline a couple of years ago, something that made no sense and nearly derailed the show. Time will tell whether not making Red John's demise the program's finale proves a smart move or huge mistake.

Here's Johnny, warts and all
It's been more than 21 years since Johnny Carson stepped down from his post as host of The Tonight Show, yet those who faithfully watched him over that three-decade period (myself included) insist no one has surpassed his excellence as a late-night host. The Tonight Show ruled the roost so long that even today, in his final season as host on tail-dragging NBC, Jay Leno's ratings continue to top those of his competitors.

Much of Carson's reign preceded the tabloid-fodder boom that's made websites like TMZ and shows like Entertainment Tonight so popular. However, none of these sites or shows have offered the revelations contained in the new biography Johnny Carson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), penned by his former attorney and close friend Henry Bushkin.

Bushkin spent 18 years operating as a combination confidant, legal adviser, even fixer for Carson. He not only had access to his records but all the secrets Carson kept out of the public record, and he's included many of them in this volume.

What emerges is alternately fascinating, troubling, revealing and at times sad. The on-camera Carson is congenial, witty, sharp and intelligent. The off-camera Carson is cruel, jealous and vindictive, willing to do things like breaking into one of his wives' apartments in pursuit of evidence she was unfaithful. He's relentless in his dismissal of anyone he feels has betrayed him, as witness the complete disavowal of Joan Rivers once she took a hosting job at Fox.

In the Carson world, as unveiled in Bushkin's book, there's no such thing as professional or objective detachment from personal friendship. In his mind, Rivers' used the forum of The Tonight Show as guest host to feather her own nest and land a plum job with another network as a competitor. No way did he see it as just business. It was quite personal.

Bushkin also presents details about repeated attempts by organized crime to get a foothold in the Carson empire. He details Carson's few close friendships with showbiz royalty like Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon, Jimmy Stewart and others, and his role as the host for Ronald Reagan's first inaugural concert (which he did as a favor, because Carson avoided almost anything with any political leanings or overtones).

Many Carson insiders are furious with Bushkin over his book. Doc Severinsen has labeled him a "traitor" and worse, and other living Carson loyalists either feel he's been too forthcoming or has exaggerated his importance. But while it is reasonable to ask why Bushkin includes such details in the book as Carson not attending his mother's funeral or refusing to visit a sick son during a hospital stay, Johnny Carson takes readers inside a world and a beloved personality in a vivid and believably detailed manner.

For someone like myself who has rarely watched late-night TV since he left, Johnny Carson is worthwhile — if painful — reading.

Crimes flies
Changes are coming when Major Crimes returns on TNT for the second half of its second season beginning 8 p.m. tonight. For one thing, the long-delayed trial involving Rusty (Graham Patrick Martin) will start soon. He's become much more than just a protected witness staying at the home of Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell). Now she must make decisions that she doesn't like, and face the possibility that Rusty won't be staying with her any longer.

There's also another wild card in the deck: her ex-husband Jack (Tom Berenger). At some point, she also must deal with the reality he wants back in her life, as well as the fact she still has some attraction to him. Finally, the cases keep getting tougher, and she finds that inevitably political decisions affect tactics and policy.

TNT took its fair share of criticism when it began Major Crimes. The general view was that giving this show to the creative team behind The Closer was a reward for that program's exploits, as well as paving the way to eventually sever ties when/if the show failed. Instead, it's steadily built audience and ratings to the point TNT has made it an anchor show on Mondays. It has also zoomed ahead of other shows like Rizzoli & Isles to become an audience favorite and TNT staple.

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