One of the best pilots I've seen this season is Person of Interest's, a decidedly gritty story that's never been more relevant than it is now, in this day of 24-hour surveillance and post-9/11 paranoia. The drama follows a billionaire named Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson of Lost), who created a super-computer program that can identify people who are about to be involved with a crime. To help him stop these crimes before they happen, he recruits believed-dead ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) to be the brawn to his brain.
I jumped at the chance to speak with creator Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher and writer of the Dark Knight movies, goes by Jonah) and showrunner Greg Plageman (whose producer credits include Law & Order, Cold Case, and more) about the show, and ended up becoming terrified of my Twitter feed in the process.
There's a very scary near-futureness to Person of Interest; considering recent world occurences and technological development, the premise seems like something that could happen next week. What real-life events helped shape the idea?
Jonah Nolan: I've been fascinated by information technology for a number of years. I grew up in London in the '70s and '80s and Scotland Yard was already hard at work putting cameras up everywhere. I moved to Chicago when I was eleven or twelve years old, and there weren't cameras anywhere. Over the course of the next twenty years, there was a creep of those cameras into American cities. I remember being fascinated as a kid and looking at those cameras wondering, "Who's watching those cameras?" The answer, when I was a kid, was nobody. There was an overworked, underpaid police constable in a room somewhere with a whole bank of monitors, and the kids realized that there wasn't a big deal, you could get away with things.
These days, the systems we have in place for interpreting and gathering information are becoming sophisticated at a rate that I don't think any of us fully appreciate. We're at that tipping point. Everyone now carries a cell phone, which is like a Trojan Horse you carry around in your pocket. It allows the government, the service provider, the handset manufacturer, or any of the people who generate the apps to have location data or metadata off your phone. There are a number of public and private entities who are gathering information about you every day.
The question the show asks, the only science-fiction component to it is, what if someone was able to do something useful with that data? So far, Google is really good at getting information out of that data. So far, we imagine the government isn't quite as efficient, but we don't really know.
Is that something you worry about on a personal level?
Jonah: I definitely worry about it. Greg wasn't quite as worried about it until we started working on this. We sort of corrupted him. I worry about the implications of it. Look at 1984, for example. If George Orwell was presented with the idea of Facebook, he'd be spinning in his grave. He imagined this top-down harvesting of information of people would be exactly that: a top-down enterprise. It would mirror the intelligence-gathering apparatus put together by people like Fidel Castro or J. Edgar Hoover. I don't think in a million years he would imagine that private citizens would volunteer all of their associations, their friendships, familial relationships, and put them the servers of a company they didn't control. Neither Greg or I are social-networking people. I think the implications of it are a little frightening. Right now in the historical moment that Westerners—Americans in particular—find themselves in, it's great. It's a convenience; it's a real life-enhancing set of technologies. But you do look at history and you imagine, if we found ourselves in the McCarthy era, for instance, that who your friends are could suddenly go from being a convenience to being a liability.
Greg Plageman: I'm sure it's a lot different using Twitter in Iran and Libya than it is here, in terms of the consequences and abilities of the government to find out what you're up to and target you. And I think that's been born out.
Jonah: That was the unreported story. Everyone talked about how Twitter fueled the Arab spring and the political movements in those countries. What went kind of unreported was that after the protests died down it made it that much easier to round up the people who organized those protests and lock them up. This year has been a classic example of the double-edged nature of these technologies. They make it easier for dissent, for people to organize political action, but they also make it easier for the government to find you. We're in a strange moment in human history and I think that's part of what the show is about.
The John Reese character is an incredible badass, but he's grounded in our reality. He's no superhero. What kind of hero or antihero did you set out to create with him?
Jonah: These are the kinds of characters I've always loved writing, and that I've always loved watching. Whether it's Bruce Willis in Die Hard, or Steve McQueen. I've always been drawn to these slightly broken, very mysterious, antiheroes who are reluctant to fight. There's the samurai movie ethos by way of the gunslinger. I'm not alone in being drawn to these characters. You see a lot of them in literature and film and TV. They're great fun to write. They're at an arm's-length relationship with law enforcement, they're dangerous, they're not only hunting people but being hunted. For me it was a natural fit.
Greg: Obviously Michael's a fantastic actor, both television and stage. He can do so much. I've never seen someone handle exposition so effortlessly. He brings a sort of... idiosyncratic—
Jonah: You can say it, he's deeply fucking odd! In a wonderful way.
Greg: It's a terrific complement to Reese's character.
Is the computer program Finch uses merely a device to get Finch and Reese on a case, or will it become a third character with its own secrets?
Jonah: It's very much—if we're doing our jobs right—a character in the show. In the pilot and subsequent episodes, we frequently cut to these surveillance angles to remind you that our guys are watching the person of interest, but they're being watched themselves by this presence. It's one thing that Greg and I are looking forward to writing, that ongoing mythological component of the show as well as that classic case-of-the-week structure.
Greg: The mythological component that we know our government is building and still building. Not so mythological. [laughs]
Most shows that J.J. Abrams puts his name on really open up into a serialized dramas, but CBS is known for simpler case-of-the-week procedurals. Is this a procedural?
Jonah: "Procedural" has become a dirty word. My favorite shows growing up, they were all procedurals. Magnum P.I., Hill Street Blues, The Equalizer, they always had a story-of-the-week component. Every week had a beginning, a middle, and an end. But if you look at The X-Files, there's a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach. TV, when it's working best, has a little bit of both. You have a story each week, which is a real story, it's not a holding action, it has a beginning, middle, and end. When I was originally thinking about this idea and developing it with Greg and J.J., it really seemed to lend itself automatically to a case-of-the-week structure. It's really about a person of interest each week, one person in New York City, and figuring out who that person is and what they've got themselves wrapped up in. At the same time it's about our heroes, who themselves are pretty interesting people, and who have their own secrets. We're gunning to do both things, to have our cake and eat it too. I don't think Greg and I would be interested in doing a pure procedural. One of the great things about J.J. and the shows he works on, is that his shows have stakes. They have characters who are free to change, adapt, die, grow. We wouldn't be interested in doing the show unless we approached it with the idea that something radical could happen to our characters.
Greg: I've worked on a lot of cop shows. I've never worked on one where people keep asking me if it's science-fiction. I think that's what is so fascinating about this premise. We can't have a "case of the week." These two characters are not law enforcement. We don't even start with a body. We're trying to stop violence. I think that's what's interesting about this show, it turns it all on its head. There's a mythological component to the machine, what we know about it, who controls it. We have characters we don't know everything about. We have pieces of their past: just when you think you know them, you don't.
What do you think of your Thursday-night timeslot? CBS moved CSI and plopped you into one of the week's best hours.
Jonah: Yeah, it's pretty fucking nutty. We were in New York when we found out, and we were pretty damned excited. You always want to work on something that people respond to, that people get excited about. CBS has had such a good response taking this pilot out there that they put an awful lot of faith in us, and we take that to work with us everyday. It's a real honor.
Jonah, with you on board and a billionaire and a "vigilante" dishing out justice, there are bound to be some Batman comparisons. Is that a fair assessment?
Jonah: Oh absolutely. And one of the things about The Dark Night Rises is that it represents the end of the line for us with that character, and that's a character I've enjoyed writing for the last nine years. The ability to stay in that space and sphere of one of these antiheroes [is great]. Batman connects to a lot of the heroes I grew up watching as a kid. We tried to bring a lot of that flavor to Batman, and we try to bring it to Reese as well. This is not a superhero show, but it has a heightened aspect to it which we're not bashful about. I think the pilot communicates that pretty well.
What other TV shows do you admire?
Greg: It's not on right now, but one of the shows Jonah and I love, we've seen every episode multiple times, is The Wire. In terms of the serialized element of the show, the metropolitan flavor, and characters that come in and out of episodes, it's something we definitely refer to often.
Jonah: In terms of influences on this show, it's The Wire, classic Patrick McGoohan 1960s psychedelic freakout The Prisoner, which was a favorite of mine as a kid—and of course Jim Caviezel starred in the remake of that—and Francis Ford Coppola's amazing movie The Conversation. In terms of stuff that's on right now that I admire, I'm a huge fan of Breaking Bad, I think that's an amazing show, and I'm a huge fan of Game of Thrones, so we grabbed their composer Ramin Djawadi, who is now composing for our show, too.
Person of Interest premieres Thursday, September 22 at 9pm on CBS.