It’s strange to think that “Person of Interest” began as something its creator Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan described as a “Twilight Zone”-flavored scenario. Nolan pondered what would happen if, behind all data being collected and sorted by our government — all of the e-mails, texts, phone chatter and search engine trails — there were a benevolent artificial intelligence that is in its clumsy way, is looking out for the average person.
Thus “Person of Interest’s” virtual protagonist, The Machine, was born. A computer system programmed with an embryonic artificial intelligence by its billionaire creator, Harold Finch (“Lost’s” Michael Emerson) the Machine maintained a measure of impartiality in its filtering by identifying targets only by Social Security number. Government agencies followed up on the numbers of suspected terrorists, deeming any others that came up as “irrelevant.”
Knowing what we know now, it’s difficult to say how “Person of Interest” would have fared if it had debuted within the past season or two. But the fact that it premiered on Sept. 22, 2011, a decade after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, transformed our relationship with security and privacy issues, made it a timely television entry.
What began as a fictionalized study of the potential and potential horrors presented by the surveillance state substantially evolved over “Person of Interest’s” five season run. As “Person of Interest” comes to an end, with its series finale airing at 10 p.m. Tuesday on CBS, it is as much about the dangers posed by the rise of artificial intelligence as it is about blowing up vehicles in midtown Manhattan.
Nolan, who co-wrote the scripts for “The Dark Knight” films, envisioned “Person of Interest” as a cinematic action thriller, and it has remained that to its soul, with bullets and bruising hand-to-hand combat finding their way into just about every hour.
At the same time, “we were very much hoping that all of the ideas in the show, which started as science fiction, would become science fact,” Nolan said in a phone interview conducted late last year, while “Person of Interest” was still in production. “We gotta stretch our legs a bit to get there, but it does kind of feel like it’s kind of right around the corner. It does feel like these technologies are kind of converging on this momentous tipping point.”
Indeed, this hour-long broadcast action drama has proven to be surprisingly prescient when it comes to predicting the ways in which our relationship to technology is evolving. The most noteworthy example of this was an episode about a National Security Agency whistleblower, targeted for his efforts to expose the government’s efforts to engage in illegal mass surveillance, during its first season.
This work of fiction, titled “No Good Deed,” premiered in May 2012 — more than a year before the public was made aware of Edward Snowden’s incendiary document leaks.
“When Jonah and I were starting the first season, we were asked repeatedly about the science fiction element of the show,” said Greg Plageman, who executive produces the drama alongside Nolan. “Next thing we knew, the Snowden revelations come out, and we’re talking to CNN and Smithsonian, and they’re asking us how we knew. We thought everybody knew!”
Also consider that “Person of Interest” premiered a few weeks before Siri was released on the market. Fittingly, a day before CBS airs the series finale Toyota announced that it is developing its own AI to improve the safety of its vehicles.
Eerily relevant as its stories may be, “Person of Interest” has tumbled in popularity since its earliest episodes.
During its first two seasons, “Person of Interest” was a hit for CBS, averaging 14 million viewers during its freshman run and netting more than 16 million in season two, when it was the fifth most-popular series on television, according to Nielsen ratings.
But in its fourth season, when it ranked 54th in the all-important 18-49 demographic, the drama’s average viewership decreased to 12 million. The current season bowed to an audience of 7.35 million, according to live-plus-same-day numbers provided by Nielsen. Previously a staple of CBS’s fall season lineup, it floated in that bubble of not-quite-cancellation limbo until earlier this spring, when the network finally scheduled this fifth and final season, double-pumping new episodes each week through May. The show’s 100th episode aired May 31.
In the series, Finch attempted to impart his creation with a sense of morality and empathy. The Machine developed the ability to learn and grow, continuing to do so throughout the series.
This almost-human quality informed the show’s singular storytelling style as well; viewers saw each mission through the perspective of its human characters and through the omnipresent Machine’s mechanical lens, which dove into backstories to analyze data about that week’s case.
The Machine’s nascent self-awareness fell outside of the government’s requirements. It only needed Finch’s program to track down enemies of the state by analyzing footage from closed-circuit cameras, phone conversations and online activity.
But Finch noticed that some “irrelevant” numbers corresponded to people who went on to either commit crimes or become victims, leading him to covertly create a band known as Team Machine. Joined first by an ex-CIA operative known as John Reese (Jim Caviezel), Finch’s team expanded to include two New York police detectives, Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson) and Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman), a reformed hacker assassin, Samantha Groves, aka Root (Amy Acker), and another ex-special forces agent, Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi). Oh, and an adorable dog named Bear.
Protecting the innocent took a toll: Carter died in a moving third season arc (which freed Henson up to star in Fox’s “Empire,” it should be noted) and in the series’ 100th episode, the team lost Root, who had served as the analog interface between The Machine and its people.
Midway through the drama’s run, the writers introduced a rival A.I., known as Samaritan. Lacking The Machine’s ability and willingness to explore moral grey areas in its problem solving, Samaritan ramped up its efforts to impose order on society, demonstrating a willingness to disregard innocent lives as it did so. Worse, Samaritan is backed by the U.S. government, operates from within the N.S.A. and has its own well-equipped team of humans that do its bidding, which mainly consists of hunting Team Machine.
This central cat-and-mouse game culminated in an existential conundrum presented in the show’s penultimate episode: Finch discovered that destroying Samaritan means dooming his own child, The Machine.
As the show ends, with an episode titled “return 0,” it flips “Person of Interest’s” original mission on its head. Destroying The Machine means ending its ability to seek justice and aid for the powerless. But if Finch doesn’t end it, Samaritan will tyrannically impose its will on the masses. Finch is facing the age-old debate about whether the needs of the few truly outweigh those of the many.
“On our show, these things happen very quietly and in secrecy, with one man in an abandoned floor of a midtown high rise,” Nolan observed. “But that moment, that incipient moment, is coming somewhere. It might be … in an anonymous building in Mount View, California, or in the bowels of IBM. But that moment is coming, and it’s going to be earth shaking.”
Correction: A previous version of this story ran under an incorrect byline.