Person Of Interest, which wraps its five-season run on CBS tonight, June 21, has been an odd duck among CBS’ slate of procedurals, a sci-fi drama blending procedural elements with deep mythology and serialized arcs.
Considered by many to be the best science fiction show on broadcast TV in recent years, the series did not get official word from CBS that the 13-episode Season 5 would be its last until mid-March, when production had wrapped. In the first part of a two-part interview with Deadline, POI creator/executive producer Jonah Nolan and executive producer/showrunner Greg Plageman discuss the WBTV-produced show’s evolution, how they used X-Files as a model, how Nolan’s work on the Batman movies led him to POI, the series’ position on artificial intelligence that went against the grain, and critics’ bias against broadcast dramas and procedurals. Nolan also addresses female lead Taraji P Henson’s exit and a marketing decision he regrets. In part two, Nolan and Plageman help dissect the series finale.
DEADLINE: You didn’t originally know Season 5 was going to be the final season. When did you start planning it as a final chapter?
NOLAN: I think we felt going into the season that we would plan the season as our last. There was still an ongoing conversation with CBS who were reluctant to talk about it in those terms. So we felt like we had an obligation to ourselves and the story and the fans to design a season that could be our last. The conversation with the network was just ensuring that we still had a fair number of episodes that were stand-alone. I think Greg and Denise Thé, the other executive producer this year, and the rest of the staff had a fantastic way of blending that approach while still hurdling towards a conclusion. I wish we had more episodes to tell that story, but I’m very proud of the episodes that we made.
DEADLINE: POI started off as a typical CBS procedural and evolved as more and more serialized drama. How did that come about?
NOLAN: The design for the show was there from the very beginning. We knew that with CBS there was more of an emphasis on case-of-the-week storytelling and that was something we really loved. The reason we sold the show to CBS in the first place was that they’re masters of this art form, which for 50 years was what everything that TV did. It’s not en vogue right now but it surely will be again, and there’s great artistry and a great tradition of an engaging set of characters who investigate a new case every week.
For me, from the beginning the very random access nature was essential to the show; the Machine is looking at New York and it’s seeing bad things that are about to happen. It’s inherently random, suggesting a case-of-the-week format. So we felt like CBS would be a great partner. However, from the beginning we had targeted shows like The X-Files and NYPD Blue, which Greg had worked on, where there’s a long-standing tradition of engaging case-of-the-week material but also an overarching set of relationships. When you’re talking about NYPD Blue or ER, it was more about the relationships. When you’re talking about X-Files, it was a relationship, but it was also a large-form mythological story.
For me, The X-Files was really a model, and Greg and I talked from the very beginning about how you would start. Obviously the Machine presents mythology. This idea of Finch, what he’s done, what he’s built, what the machine is, what it represents to people, the fact that he’s in hiding. I mean right out of the gate there’s a story there that you want to know more about.
We also had a commitment from the beginning, in part because the series grew out of my kind of hangover from working on the Batman franchise for 10 years. I’m very proud of those movies but one of the things that you don’t really get to do when you’re doing a Batman movie is you don’t get to tell the little stories in between that actually make Batman who Batman is. Batman is about rescuing ordinary people from random acts of violence. That’s a huge part of the character. There are these great mythological villains that he winds up battling but the essence of that character, like Superman, is someone who’s this watcher out there in the night who’s trying to prevent people from coming to the same kind of random tragedy that struck down his parents.
So coming out of 10 years of that I was like I want to write the stories in between as well. Person Of Interest grew out of a lot of that impulse. Just like with the Batman movies, from the beginning — and this is something we talked about with J.J. right up front — the show lent itself to an approach in which you would build great, serialized villains within the storytelling. That led us to Elias and HR and Vigilance and every season a different group not necessarily connected to the Machine storyline.
Episode 2 (of Season 1) featured flashbacks, Episode 3 started to tee up Elias, who we met in Episode 7, so the show was consistently serialized from the beginning, and by the third season there are so many different serialized storylines that the show began to feel more mythological. But that was part of the design from the beginning. I’m very proud of how we executed that.
DEADLINE: POI was a rare series that killed off its female lead, played by Taraji P. Henson. Looking back on that decision, is it still something that you feel you should have done or are you having second thoughts now?
PLAGEMAN: I would just say that was a mutual decision. Taraji really wanted to go do other projects and we crafted a narrative that we felt was in keeping with the character. We parted on amicable terms.
NOLAN: We loved working with Taraji and one of the reasons why we parted on great terms and very proud of the material we did was you have this incredibly talented actor who’s so known for her range in addition to everything else. It’s incredibly exciting watching what she’s doing in Empire. I think one of the things from the beginning that I certainly regret is that, we had a great relationship with Warners and CBS but the decision was made early on not to feature Taraji prominently in the advertising for the show and I think that was a mistake. Greg, jump in if you think I’m being too direct. It’s difficult.
When you start these things off, conversations are had, and we had a lot of arguments back and forth about it, but the decision was made to sell the show as a two-hander and I think, in hindsight, it feels like you have this fantastic, commercially appealing, incredibly talented female lead and she’s not on the poster. It’s always hard to figure out how to market these things in the first place. You don’t want to second guess these things too much but I think that was a mistake. I was never happier than when I was walking down Ventura Boulevard and saw a bus pass with a picture of Taraji Henson on the side of it. I thought that’s fantastic. We’re thrilled for her.
I would change very, very few things about what we did with the show from the beginning. I would have fought even harder to ensure that Taraji was on the poster in the beginning, but I wouldn’t change any of the moves that we made along the way in terms of big character movement. I think part of the reason why our fans are as die-hard and rabid as they are is because the show took risks. We weren’t interested in cashing checks for the rest of our careers.
DEADLINE: Person Of Interest made artificial intelligence a central part of the story years before it became a hot topic. While most headlines today incite fear, the Machine on POI is not a threat but helps people. Jonah, why did you decide to do that and what it your position on AI, a subject that you have tackled in several projects?
NOLAN: I think it’s a nuanced one, it’s a complicated one. Part of the reason for the inception of the show or the spark for me was that I had seen many, many examples in film and TV of dystopian visions of AI. But, while the movie Her is a great example that came out a couple of years after we started making the show, it is one of the very few examples you can point towards of a positive depiction of artificial intelligence. It’s a subject that I’m kind of fascinated with, took a similar approach with the robots in Interstellar and now our current project, HBO’s Westworld, sort of exploring the same idea. I think we’ve long viewed AI as the bogeyman. That’s indicative of the way that we’ve viewed anything else that we see as a possible threat to us. Look, there’s good reason to be apprehensive.
I think the open AI initiative that Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking and others pushed for is a great idea. There needs to be transparency in what we’re doing. A lot of the stuff that’s happening right now is happening behind closed doors. It’s not science fiction to imagine that an ASI, an artificial super intelligence, will or could have an enormous impact on society. I think it’s an enormously positive impact. That’s part of what we wanted to portray but we also wanted to portray it in a very balanced way. We wanted to consider both the upside and downside of that and really get into the nitty-gritty of this. One of the things I’m proudest of for the show is this long-form conversation about how AI should play out. How unbound should it be.
For us, in this show the AI takes on the form that I think is the likeliest that it’ll take on, which is a network intelligence. Not a robot necessarily wandering around but a network intelligence that watches us and interacts with us and asks us to do things. In a sense, in this show we become the robots. Reese becomes the agent acting at the behest of this all-seeing intelligence. I think if you get to the end of this show, will you imagine that AI is an unqualified good thing? No. But I think from the beginning we wanted to portray both sides of it and the idea that a networked artificial intelligence could be a great force for good. And then you have Samaritan, I think that’s a little more familiar in terms of AI presentations where they want to take over the world. It’s abundantly clear that Samaritan would be a great force for change and good in the world but at a significant moral cost. We wanted to play in the gray area.
DEADLINE: POI faced a number of challenges during its run, including a lack of streaming options early on. Now that it is ending, any final thoughts?
PLAGEMAN: I’d just like to say thanks to our hard-core fans for really sticking with this show. It was difficult not having a streaming option for a number of years. It was difficult for people to catch up to the show who had been hearing about it as it was going along. We’re very proud of the show. I’m glad now there’s an option to watch it not only in syndication but in streaming on Netflix. I hope that people continue to discover the show and catch up with it even in the years that go by. I feel like we successfully pulled off a show that had both the stand-alone and serialized mythology in broadcast television. Frankly, I’d like to see a lot more shows like that in broadcast.
NOLAN: I’d like to echo that, Nellie. It’s been such an amazing experience for me personally. The people I’ve gotten to work with. But one of the things that really stood out over the years was the fan passion and enthusiasm for the show. You’ve got to be a little careful going and looking through some of the stuff on Twitter and Tumblr and the message boards. But when you’re doing a broadcast procedural with a science fiction element, I’ve worked in this business a long time. You go to make a comic book movie you know you’re not getting nominated for any awards no matter how well the movie does. There’s that inherent bias against genre. In the last five to 10 years there’s a bias against broadcast television and procedurals. So to go make this show we knew we were not going to be doing it for glory or recognition at any of the formal levels.
One of the things I’m proudest of…in any given situation with a TV show the ratings are always declining. It always barrels towards every show winds up essentially having to…there’s always a negotiation. For us it was this last season of having 13 episodes to wrap things up. Would we have liked to have more, sure. Whatever. I mean the bottom line with the show was we weren’t doing it for the Emmy nominations. We weren’t doing it for the critical kudos. But the people who found the show and loved the show loved it so much. You’re never prouder. Their reaction, their absorption and satisfaction with the show, that for me was the reward. We’re very grateful for their support over the years and for their passion. We really hope they enjoy these last couple episodes.