If “Person of Interest” has piqued your interest but you haven’t checked out CBS’s acclaimed sci-fi crime drama in its first four seasons, you’re in luck. And if you’re a committed fan, things are about to get even more interesting in Season 5.
For newcomers, Jonathan Nolan-created series is now more available for viewing than ever before, beginning a syndicated run on WGN while simultaneously debuting on Netflix. For the die-hards, the fifth season is about to venture into some fascinating and thought-provoking territory as it explores real-world issues related to the advent of powerful artificial intelligence systems.
During a conference call on Monday, star Michael Emerson and executive producer Greg Plageman dug deep into the series’ burning questions, as well as more esoteric topics, including exactly how a crossover with “Elementary” might work, and whether the comic book page may be the place to explore some of the backstory of Mr. Finch and John Reese.
On whether each season has felt complete in and of itself:
Greg Plageman: I don’t know if I speak for Michael in that regard, but as a writer here from the very beginning with Jonah [Nolan], one thing we felt very adamant about was that we would be able to tell a complete story on the show. This has always been a show where every season finale felt like it could have been a series finale. And this year will be no different.
Michael Emerson: I feel like we kind of wrap things up every season. And so I think we’ll kind of continue in that same vein, maybe with a hint more “finale” feeling. But at the same time, I think probably the writers are going to leave it a little bit ambiguous, because we don’t know if it’s the end of “POI” as we know it or not. So we kind of have to juggle that.
On the fate of the Machine – and its sense of morality – in Season 5:
Plageman: I think one of the reasons we think of the Machine as a more moral entity, at least, perhaps than Samaritan is because we know that Harold Finch coded it. And I think Harold has always had an ambivalence about the creation of a god and has never quite trusted it in the sense that if this was something that he unleashed in the world, then a heavy burden falls upon him. He’s tried everything in his power to create something that first do no harm.
And I think what’s happening now is an emerging debate with Amy Acker’s character – Root, Samantha Groves – who’s telling him that is no longer enough that the Machine that he built is in dire straits unless they change it, in terms of reconstituting it. And it becomes a sort of a center around which we based this season. And I’m actually really excited about doing 13 episodes this year, because we get the ability to really go into that in depth and explore what that means. And I think we’re going to also see a side of Harold Finch that he’s kept at bay, because of his ambivalence about creating a god.
Emerson: I think you’ve put your finger on what the big issue of the first few episodes of Season 5 is: If we are to revive the Machine — and, of course, we would like to do that – what kind of checks and balances will it include, if any? Must it be completely unfettered if it is to go head-to-head with Samaritan? Is that desirable? Where does that take us ultimately? And it’s fun. It’ll be a battle of philosophies between Mr. Finch and Root, who has a different perspective. And that’s going to be one of the chief pleasures of Season 5.
On the collaborative nature of evolving Mr. Finch over five seasons:
Plageman: From the very beginning, Michael has been extremely collaborative with us in developing his character’s backstory and delving into even mining all the flashbacks that we’ve gone into, and everything from his injury and his relationship with Grace on the show, as well.
Emerson: It always seemed clear to me what Mr. Finch was like. I don’t think there was a lot of experimentation required. I felt right about it when we shot the pilot. I had to think about the physical handicap carefully, because I knew if the show was a success, I’d be doing it for a long, long time. But the character seemed fairly plain to me on the page, and of course it’s gotten richer and more nuanced as we’ve gone along and thought about it and lived in it and walked around with it. So it’s been, for me, a happy actor experience … [The flashbacks are] great [too]. I really enjoy them. I love seeing the infancy of the Machine. And I love seeing Mr. Finch in happier days …
Almost everything on the show creeps up on me. I kind of know whatever is in the script that’s being filmed at the moment and not much more, not much beyond that. And it’s kind of the way I like it. I’m comfortable reacting to the scripts as they come and being focused on those episodes, and not too much in the business of connecting the dots into the future.
On what they still find intriguing about Mr. Finch:
Emerson: Because the character has been evolving over the course of four seasons, I think there’s still a lot we don’t know about him. And I’m interested in that journey, moving forward. I’m interested in the kinds of problem-solving that the narrative imposes on Mr. Finch: personal problems, philosophical problems, practical problems. There seems to be a fairly inexhaustible list of them, and its fun to tackle. And I don’t think we have, by any means, run out of material.
Plageman: I think the interesting thing for us, in terms of writing Harold Finch, is that when Michael came to the show, people imbue so many different ideas on to him, because he played a villain on another show you might have heard of. But his character was never that character on this show. It was in fact a character that endeavored to do something to better the world, to help change the world.
And I think it’s become a burden in some ways to him. I think it’s an extremely heavy mantel to bear, particularly when he lost Ingram and he lost so many people close to him, including a personal life. His fiancé, he hasn’t been able to see her anymore. And I think it’s become a tremendous weight on Harold Finch’s character. And I think what we’d like to explore particularly this season is what happens when someone is able to transfer some of that burden to others, but also when something so dramatic happens that there may become a shift in the character that we haven’t seen before.
On the show’s darker, more thought-provoking and sometimes disturbing elements:
Plageman: I certainly think there’s a dark quality of the show that we endeavor to imbue the show with. I think it’s underneath. The mechanics of the show are very thought-provoking, but I never think we’ve strayed from being an entertaining show. And honestly, I think we’ve baffled a lot of people in broadcast, because oftentimes when it comes to a broadcast television show, it becomes a certain amount of comfort food for people, and they become attached to the characters and they want that thing every week. And then when we do things like kill off a character or veer into something a little darker terrain, it startles people in a way that I think you get away with a lot more in cable.
So we’re kind of like a show that’s in a zone right now where we feel like we’ve snuck in a lot of somewhat-subversive ideas into what people can view as a procedural. And procedural’s not a dirty word for me. I grew up writing “NYPD Blue” and was proud to call it a procedural. But there was a serialized component to that show as well that I thought was very thought-provoking, and I think we’ve endeavored to do the same.
One of the reasons I think we’re extremely about excited about this going to WGN or Netflix coming up is simply because this is a show that can have a certain amount of opacity if you don’t keep up with it, if you don’t understand what’s going on. And we’ve always been comfortable with that. We’d rather it be a show that stuck to your ribs than something that was just comfort food. And I don’t know if that’s something that people find hard to keep up with, but I think availability has certainly been an obstacle. And now it will no longer.
On the real-world issues that become even more real by the moment:
Plageman: I think Michael and I have been dealing with this for a couple years now where the initial questions on the show were about the science fiction premise being somewhat far-fetched. And then the next thing you know we were on CNN or going to the Smithsonian, where they were asking us, “How did you know?” We thought everybody knew.
Certainly the Snowden revelations came along. And perhaps the more troubling thing, I think, is that the collective yawn of the public in terms of knowing that the government is watching and recording everything they’re writing and saying, digitally, but voluntarily giving up their information. And, you know, so after that sort of happened, I think what became more compelling for us was talking about artificial intelligence. And there’s a lot of really interesting people we’ve been talking to who have made us aware that we’re a lot closer to creating something like this than you think.
Interestingly, there’s another show on WGN that I’d like to watch and catch up on, and that’s “Manhattan.” Because I think the creation of the atomic bomb, if anything of an analog in history that I could look for, for Harold Finch, it would probably be Oppenheimer and the ambivalence that he had about creating something that is such a monumental existential risk in the world and what that burden is like with an understanding that if we don’t do it someone else will. And I think that that’s the most compelling thing to me about the show and about Harold and what he’s created, and what he’s going to do with it going forward.
Emerson: I think that’s an interesting comparison to draw to Oppenheimer, and an apt one. I confess that when I read or hear stuff about developments at Google’s A.I. laboratory or something, I find it a little hair-raising to know that we’re on the trail of something so life-altering – or species-altering.
On WGN syndication partner “Elementary” – and a possible crossover:
Emerson: I have to tell you that I am a big fan of “Elementary,” not just because we’re sharing an evening on WGN, but because for some reason that has been the show that I’ve managed to watch every episode of.
Plageman: Now that Michael has just informed me that he hasn’t missed an episode of “Elementary,” I think I’m going to have to consider [a crossover].
Emerson: It would be tricky, though, to do a mashup of our show and another show, because they seem to be different worlds. In what world would that mashup take place? In the world of “POI”? In the world of “Elementary”? And then you have characters that, they might be like matter and antimatter. They might just implode when they got near each other…It would be tricky, because I kind of feel like Sherlock Holmes is the Sherlock Holmes of “Elementary,” and Harold Finch is the Sherlock of Holmes of “Person of Interest.” And I don’t know what they would do together. I guess they would have to team up somehow, or maybe they’re mashed up together into one character somehow with two faces.
On the concept of continuing “Person of Interest” in a non-traditional way, like mini-seasons or recurring TV movies:
Emerson: I think it would be interesting to carry on this story in a different format, you know, maybe a shorter season or, as you said, fewer but longer episodes. I mean, all of those platforms are changing so much and everything’s more fragmented. It might be invigorating to not be staring down the barrel of 23 episodes every year.
On whether the end of “Person of Interest” has been planned from the beginning:
Plageman: Yes. Jonah and I have talked about it, and we do know what the ending of the show is. … In television, you’re never guaranteed another day, so you have to dole these things out accordingly. And I think the premise of this show is large enough that, you know, we could go for more seasons than this one. But, you know, given the situation we’re looking at right now, we have to be prepared to be nimble and compress story if we feel like it’s time to wind it up. And we have the ending that we want to tell.
On the prospect of exploring more of the “Person of Interest” world and backstory in the comic book format:
Plageman: Wow. That’s really intriguing. That’s pretty exciting. There’s certainly a genre aspect to the show that we’ve always embraced – you could even say a superhero quality to John Reese. And the premise of the show was once considered sci-fi, but apparently not anymore. It could be really cool. I think what this show’s evolved from sort of being a paranoid thriller about the surveillance state in procedural clothing has now become more of a commentary almost on the burgeoning artificial super-intelligence that we believe may emerge in the world in the coming years. So it can be a lot of different things, and I certainly think that would be an interesting possibility.
Emerson: I think that would be fun. You know, I’m a big fan of comics and graphic novels, because I used to be an illustrator, so I love to see how people draw things. And I do feel like our show would really lend itself to a kind of graphic-ization, because I feel our characters have a kind of particular look about them that could translate onto paper in a good way. We sometimes use illustrated storyboards when we’re shooting episodes, and I love looking at them, because I love the way they draw our characters, how they capture them in a few strokes. And, yes, I think a bunch of cool things could be done that way.
”Person of Interest” airs weekdays in syndication as part of WGN’s “Prime Crime” lineup. The series will return for its fifth season next year on CBS.