Why "Person Of Interest" Is The Most Subversive Show On Television
What began as a simple-seeming CBS procedural has become a prescient, paranoid thriller.
(Left) Jim Caviezel, who plays John Reese on CBS' Person of Interest; (right) Michael Emerson as Harold Finch.
Person of Interest began on CBS in the fall of 2011 with a relatively digestible premise: that in the post-9/11 era, we are all being watched by a computer surveillance system designed to root out terrorists. What Harold Finch, the designer of the system (called "the machine" on the show), hadn't accounted for was that it would also identify individuals (by their social security numbers) who were under the threat of more mundane crimes — or were soon to commit them themselves. The government didn't care about those people, but Finch, a brilliant, limping billionaire played by Michael Emerson, did. In the pilot episode, Finch enlisted John Reese, a broken, ex-CIA assassin — Jim Caviezel in full Clint Eastwood growl — to help him solve these pre-crimes. The show was created by Jonathan Nolan, who has co-written The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, along with the forthcoming Interstellar, with his brother, Christopher Nolan.
Along the way, Person of Interest — which airs on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. and will end its third season next week — became something more. It became prescient, for one thing: The web the show had fictionally spun in which the government, often in collusion with corporations, is watching and listening to us, turned out to be almost exactly what Edward Snowden's leaks revealed to be true. While Person of Interest still has the spine of a case-of-the-week procedural, it has deepened into an acutely paranoid, multi-layered story about emotionally damaged, well-funded vigilantes (who kill frequently). The structure of the show also shifted in Season 3; Carter (Taraji P. Henson), Finch and Reese's police ally who also became a friend, was killed, and Shaw (Sarah Shahi) and Root (Amy Acker) — both of whom may be clinically insane — joined the gang. In Nielsen's season-to-date ratings, Person of Interest draws 14.2 million viewers. That's down marginally from last year when it aired on Thursday nights at 9 p.m., but it's still the fifth most-watched scripted show on network television.
Recently, I spoke with Nolan, who goes by Jonah, and executive producer Greg Plageman in their offices in Burbank. With a French poster for Francis Ford Coppola's paranoiac classic The Conversation looming over us, we discussed the show's disturbing reflection of current events, artificial intelligence, why we should probably trust the government more than we trust corporations, privacy, where the show is going, and how Person of Interest manages to be so popular. You may never want to post to Facebook or do a Google search again.
The show has really changed this season. Did it unfold the way you planned?
Jonathan Nolan: The first half of the season was building towards Carter's heroic demise. And then the second half of the season was building into what we call the international, or "the machine," storyline — bigger than organized crime in New York, more outward-looking. I don't know, Greg, did we do everything we planned to do?
Greg Plageman: I think so. We still have a few arrows in the quiver of things we want to explore next year. But I think the big thing is that, when Jonah and I started this show, in all the initial interviews we were doing, the constant, encroaching surveillance state was the theme. People were asking, "Is this science fiction?" And increasingly, it became obvious that it was a reality. And now that that's a quaint notion, and we've put that aside, I think the interesting theme we're going to be dealing with in the coming season is the emergence of AI.
JN: We're three seasons in now, and the premise is established as actual fact. But the difference between our show and PRISM is that PRISM fucking sucks. PRISM doesn't work. Because it's a fucking mountain of data. Right? It's an impossible problem. We're not software engineers, and that's not what we do, but we have an unlimited R&D budget in terms of ideas. We can just come up with whatever bullshit we want to in the room, and that's what we're putting in our show. With Finch trying to build a machine that can predict violent, aberrant human behavior, he finally realized that the only solution was to build something at least as smart as a human. And that's the moment we're in right now in history. Forget the show. We are currently engaged in an arms race — a very real one. But it's being conducted not by governments, as in our show, but by private corporations to build an AGI — to build artificial intelligence roughly as intelligent as a human that can be industrialized and used toward specific applications. Banal ones, boring ones: How do I lay out my factory floor to make the process of making widgets more efficient?
Are you techie people? AI and AGI are such vast concepts.
JN: Greg and I are big tech dorks. We spend a lot of time fascinated by this concept of artificial intelligence. We're back in soothsayer mode, emboldened by our correctly assessing our nation's surveillance state. But I'm pretty confident that we're going to see the emergence of AGI in the next 10 years. We have friends and sources within Silicon Valley — there is currently a headlong rush and race between a couple of very rich people to try to solve this problem. Maybe it will even happen in a way that no one knows about; that's the premise we take for our show. But we thought it would be a fun idea that the Manhattan Project of our era — which is preventing nuclear terrorism, that's the quiet thing that people have been diligently working on for 10 years — that's the subtext of the whole show. The problem of the modern era is: How do you find that needle in a haystack? How do you find that bomb that's going to level a city? A lot of the effort here has been toward that problem.
Creator and executive producer Jonathan Nolan (left); executive producer Greg Plageman (right).
There were so many revelations in the Edward Snowden leaks, but one was that, while many people distrusted the NSA already, its PRISM partners were all of these companies that we may like, or even have affection for — or, at the very least, use all the time. Like Facebook and Google and Apple.
JN: The revelation was the private companies have been sharing our data with the government, right? And agreed, it was this unholy alliance, so your trust when you embark with a private company in a relationship in which they're going to share some of your data, your anticipation is privacy. But if everyone would step back for a second and think about how fucked up it is that everyone trusts Mark Zuckerberg, everyone trusts the Google guys. But it's like, don't let the government see any of that shit! It's like, Guys, are you fucking kidding? These are publicly traded companies with management teams who are, because of the bizarre and somewhat outdated jurisprudence when it comes to shareholder rights in the corporate environment, they have no fucking obligation to their customers or to their employees; they only have obligations to their shareholders. They're literally coupled to a stock market that is itself increasingly run by artificial intelligence. This is where the whole thing spins into a fucking bowl of fuckin' disaster. You have a stock market that is increasingly dominated by microtransactions, high-frequency trading conducted by fucking computers that have parameters built into them. That value determines entirely the value of these companies into which we have poured our private thoughts, feelings, associations. Tally all that up and frankly, while I'm not terribly happy about the government having this information, at the very least that's sort of the Social Contract we entered into when we allowed the government to have police powers domestically. But why is anyone more comfortable with anyone having this information than the head of the NSA? And the reason is they have better fucking PR. They have cute names. And they're friendly and shiny and happy. But that information is for sale. It's hard to imagine Facebook being bought out by a, not to sound jingoistic, but by a foreign-held corporation. But who the fuck owns MySpace?
JN: I don't know who owns MySpace. It's still probably Fox, right? Fox at some point is going to off-load that to the Chinese. And what happens to that information? It's a real problem. We're more comfortable with the idea of private corporations who have no allegiance to anyone, and who we can't drag in front of Congress because we've signed an end-user license agreement where we've given away all our rights to this information. But this is information that absolutely can be used to control you.
GP: We're hilarious hypocrites; we love our Gmail.
JN: All my shit's in the cloud!
GP: We assume, Well, it's relatively benign, and we have no historical precedent for it, until the next Hoover steps up and says, "Thank you for all this fantastic information." It may be that diabolical fuckhead in the government, or it could be a private enterprise guy who says, "OK, it's now my chance to leverage this in a huge way." We just haven't seen it yet. But to have your entire music library, but also something tracking you at all times — all your taste is readily available, like Jonah says. But the thing that's crazy is that what we assume is that it can be contained, or we assume that the nation-state has our best interest at heart, or we assume that the private corporations have our best interest at heart. But even if you take a cursory glance at TED Talks or what the MIT Media Lab is obsessed with, it's two things: one is AI, and the other one is robotics. And I think that what's kind of fun and frightening, and things that we can be dealing with on our show.
This is a very popular show that's on CBS! You're laughing as I say this, but it's interesting that you're getting all of these ideas into a very mainstream show made by Warner Bros. and aired on CBS.
JN: It's a cyberpunk procedural on CBS. It's totally bananas, but cool. And CBS has been incredibly supportive of those big ideas on the show. Never got the note of, "What's all this AI shit?" They've allowed us to confidently steer in this direction. The audience seems fascinated by these things, as we are. So we just continue to get to play in this space. We think that the show is more effective and frightening for people because it isn't 50 years in the future; it's right now. And you can dismiss some things we're talking about in the show as nonsensical or far-fetched — and certainly some of the things are, for lack of a better word, unrealistic: It's narrative drama, we're taking some leaps here. But we're really interested in trying to consider these questions in the context of now. What happens now? Because, by the time AGI or some version of non-human intelligence begins interacting with us, it's going to look largely like now.
A number of the Person of Interest characters have killed people, and seem untroubled by that. What do you think the show says about people, and people's relationships to "good" and "bad"?
GP: They all come to the table with their own amount of baggage and mistrust. The importance of their anonymity was always front and center — this motley crew that found each other. The center of it is Finch and Reese, and the odd-couple-ness of it. The secrecy was the fun, that we were in on it with them in attempting this mission. We've done a lot of talking about the surveillance state and all this stuff, and I think Jonah would agree, we never wanted to be too didactic about it. We never wanted to finger-wag about it.
JN: The show is fundamentally about people. That was the pitch. That's the reason CBS and Warner Bros. were excited about it. Because you have all these big questions, but it's grounded every week obviously in our series regulars, but also our person of the week, our Person of Interest. Forget all these big, high-level questions for a second: What's tantalizing about surveillance and the voyeuristic aspect of it is the people watching. There's a scene in Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan's second film, which Tarantino thinks is one of the great gems of the 20th century, and a film that I was very struck by in its treatment of superheroes. But there's one scene in particular in which Bruce Willis' character steps into the big Philly train station and he touches lightly against people, and he just sort of knows where are they going, what are they doing. Obviously it's a very heightened premise. But it's a really cool scene. And at the very essence of our show is this idea that of a crowd, This person is going to work; this person is going to kill someone. This person is dealing with the psychic trauma of something that was happening yesterday. Everyone's got their story.
Root, played by Amy Acker, who was a new series regular this season, has ended up being the voice of the machine in person form, and it's affected the whole mythology of the show.
GP: She's our first cyborg character! We could go into the whole backstory about Amy, and how we got her. But for all of our characters, if it's, This person's a killer; this person's a villain, it's never that interesting if it's one-dimensional. Every person has their own rationalization for what they're doing. Eventually you get into the backstory of who Root is, and we understand that she has a perfectly logical rationale for what she's doing that, in some ways, is very much along the lines of what Harold Finch probably thinks we're all headed towards. They have a difference of opinion on how to get there, and whether there should be a human element controlling this thing. When Fusco was first introduced on the show, he tried to kill Reese. What was fascinating to Jonah and I was how quickly people forgot about this, and just kept thinking of him as a good guy. He's a good guy with a really dark past, a really dark history. Reese and Shaw could very easily be the most disillusioned people on the show, because they were killers who did it without any reservation in the past, until their own boss turned on them and tried to kill them. All these characters are people in search of a connection; they're all in search of some sort of relationship. They've all experienced some sense of loss in terms of personal relationships, obviously. Harold Finch has lost his fiancée who's still out there and doesn't have any idea that he's still alive; Reese lost the character of Jessica, who's his real love. And yet, when he lost Carter, what was so crazy to me when that episode came, and I really did feel the loss of how Jim portrayed that character — we saw the introduction of that relationship on the show, and then we saw the end of it. And it was crushing. That was a new relationship he had established in the world that meant something. And I think all our characters are moving toward that.
In previous interviews, you've talked about J. Edgar Hoover and the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Panopticon. I keep going back to this idea of Person of Interest being a mainstream show that's produced by a megacorporation and aired by a megacorporation. Most viewers don't know who Michel Foucault is, and yet, the show is pretty accessible.
JN: The public perception of the entertainment business is monolithic, evil, conspiratorial. So maybe it's a check against letting our own conversation get away from us — where Mark Zuckerberg's going to herd us all into camps. Maybe it will all be OK, because from our perspective, we had this goofy idea for a show which has all this subversive, weird shit in it and no one has ever said anything to us. If you don't like the show or it's compromised, it's not because someone at Warners or CBS said, "You're close to exposing the Illuminati and you have to remove those ideas!" We've never heard a fucking thing about it. Occasionally they'll tell us we can't use the word "asshole" — we get that frequently.
GP: You sit down with Peter Roth from Warner Bros. — they're just as fascinated as we are about all this stuff. We brought Valerie Plame in to talk to all the writers, and you forget that, in another way, she's also a soccer mom. She's not just the spy in the movie; she had a personal life. And all those people who work for those organizations, they're just as subjected to all this as we are — they just work for that organization.
JN: You're dealing with the problems right in front of you: Life is difficult, you gotta eat, you gotta earn money, you gotta take care of your kids. New York is just massive — 8 million, 20 million, all these people. The big idea behind the show is that all of those stories are valuable and interesting; some of them may connect to each other — this is where we're a little different from your typical CBS show when we first started — and buried somewhere in there may be the person whose story is the most important story in the world. And that's what the show suggests. We're interested in narratives that are grounded in realism and naturalism and look like the ordinary world. But imagine that underneath everything, there is this very interesting story. This is one of the most alluring parts of our narrative for me. There's this titanic struggle taking place and no one fucking knows about it. I do kind of believe maybe that there's a thread of that in the real world. All of the financing for AI, again — a lot of it's dark, a lot of these companies no one's ever heard of. You won't hear of them until they announce their findings. These dark anonymous office blocks in Palo Alto and Mountainview, some of them are doing the next music service or entertainment streaming service or disruptive technology. But some of them are building something that's going to change the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.