Review: Wisdom of the Crowd 1×1 (US: CBS)

Almost plausible, almost interesting

Wisdom of the Crowd
Wisdom of the Crowd stars Jeremy Piven (far right) as Jeffrey Tanner, a visionary tech innovator who creates a cutting-edge crowdsourcing app to solve his daughter's murder, and revolutionize crime solving in the process. Working with him is Sara Morton (Natalia Tena), a brilliant engineer whose relationship with Tanner goes beyond professional; Josh Novak (Blake Lee, second from left), a talented, nerdy-cool head programmer; and Tariq Bakari (Jake Matthews, far left), a tech genius and expert hacker with issues adhering to the rules. Photo: Diyah Pera/CBS ©2017 CBS Broadcasting

In the US: Sundays, 8/7c, CBS

Post-Brexit and post-Trump, the idea that large groups of people are inherently wise and capable of making good decisions collectively has taken something of a beating. But there is a certain degree of truth to the idea that there is ‘wisdom in the crowd‘.

Strictly speaking, CBS’s Wisdom of the Crowd should more properly be called Knowledge of the Crowd – maybe it got lost in translation from the original Hebrew, being based on an Israeli TV series of (more or less) the same name – since it’s really about crowdsourcing information from people. It sees Jeremy Piven (Entourage, Mr Selfridge) going full Iron Man as a genius tech billionaire who gives it all up to launch a crowdsourcing app/platform called ‘Sophie’ (you know, cos of the Greek word for wisdom) to help find out who really killed his daughter, as it’s almost certainly not the poor sod who’s currently languishing behind bars.

Piven’s idea is that if he puts up $100 million as a reward and adds all the evidence to Sophie, people will visit the site or download the app, they’ll spot things that have been missed or provide valuable additional information. Powerful data mining and stats techniques will then work out what’s dross and what’s the 10% of actually useful information coming from the crowd, creating correlations that the police would never make.

YA tech innovator

There have, of course, been plenty of “tech innovator” shows in the past year, in which genius tech billionaires decide that a given industry needs some innovative Silicon Valley thinking and a big pile of silicon chips in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century (eg Pure Genius, APB). These shows have, in turn, inadvertently been shining demonstrations of exactly why that’s a dumb idea, with our heroes essentially discovering that there are reasons things are currently done the way they’re done and you screw things up colossally if you tinker too much.

To its credit, Wisdom of the Crowd actually does a surprisingly good job of avoiding this issue, without simultaneously ‘doing a Numb3rs‘ – ie coming up with extremely complicated theoretical solutions that wouldn’t work in practice and which the police could do anyway using other methods. Here, Sophie’s data mining probably would be able to look through eye witnesses reports and the like, as well as chatroom discussions et al, to come up with associations humans would miss (and if you don’t believe me, have a word with Cambridge Analytica). It probably would attract the attention of people who would ignore a police request for information (although how long it would maintain that attention is something later episodes might have to address, since I imagine it would get uninstalled from phones relatively quickly normally).

Similarly, the app allows more than simple crowdsourcing of information. When Piven and his team (of course he has a team) want to eavesdrop on a suspect’s conversation, helper police bloke Richard T Jones (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) who’s along for the ride to monitor progress on the case points out that hacking the suspect’s cellphone would be illegal and the results inadmissible in court. So Piven and co find a nearby app user and use the app to video chat with her to ask if they can use her phone to record the conversation – it’s voluntary so admissible.

At the same time, the show does still highlight issues around data privacy and the information freely available online to all of us, about all of us. And it also points out that crowds can be very stupid, too, with the posting of information about an innocent Arab taxi driver they’re looking for leading to him getting beaten by a baying mob.

Standard CBS format

Although there is this degree of wisdom to Wisdom of the Crowd that lifts it above the usual CBS tech nonsense (eg Scorpion) and a decent cast that also includes Monica Potter (Parenthood, Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence) as Piven’s politician ex-wife, where it all falls apart is in its use of the standard CBS procedural bolt-on format module.

Do we have a special secret room full of people standing up in front of computers, staring at some giant monitors? Check. Do we have a diverse yet still absolutely interchangeable cast of hard-working, genius characters? Check. Does the plot follow the standard crime investigation plotting, with false leads et al? Check.

Boring. So very very boring.

Needless to say, by the end of the episode, Piven’s daughter’s murder isn’t solved, forcing him to keep on looking while investigating other related cases that the data mining algorithm throws up accidentally. Did you see that coming? Of course you did.

Wisdom of the Crowd

Wisdom of the Crowd is probably the most promising new procedural of the past year or so. However, that’s a low bar, given the inanity we’ve been facing of late, and I can’t really imagine myself watching more than a couple of episodes at most, given it’s only got a couple of moderately interesting characters and an absolutely generic format.

If you like episodic procedural crime shows, though, this might be worth trying out. I’ll see what my mother in law says – she’s love this kind of thing.

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