Michael Emerson on ‘Person of Interest,’ Artificial Intelligence, and the TV Landscape

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Michael Emerson as Harold Finch. (photo: CBS)

Let me start by pointing out how surreal it is to discuss the rise in artificial intelligence with Ben Linus from Lost.

Okay, it wasn’t exactly Ben Linus. But it was the actor behind the role, Michael Emerson. We met in an upstairs lounge at the Knickerbocker Hotel in midtown to discuss Mr. Emerson’s current gig, CBS’ Person of Interest. On Person, Mr. Emerson portrays billionaire tech genius Harold Finch, whose artificial intelligence creation The Machine can predict crimes before they happen. Unfortunately, no machine exists to stop the person who originally scheduled us to meet in the packed H&M Times Square across the street. Mr. Emerson’s voice — quiet, thoughtful and intelligent – is better suited to an area without thousands of tourists attempting to buy cheap jeans.

Thankfully the Knickerbocker proved a more secluded spot, because we did have much to discuss. WGN America is set to air Person of Interest in its entirety during its Prime Crime block (paired with Elementary and Blue Bloods), starting with three back to back episodes September 1. On the same day, the first three seasons will hit Netflix for the first time, with the fourth season following suit on September 22.

All this and Mr. Emerson is currently filming the show’s fifth season, which premieres mid-season next year. Much has been made about the abridged 13 episodes as opposed to the usual 23, with many speculating it could be the show’s final run. But like so many conversations do these days, this one turned to the modern landscape of television. Regarding the 13 episode season Mr. Emerson did admit that, yes, it could be a sign of the show’s demise. But, he says, it could also be the next step for Broadcast Television in this age where Cable and Pay are king.

Person of Interest on WGN, the marathon begins [September 1], and it’s finally on Netflix. What are your thoughts on the binge-watching method of receiving TV? Do you think anything is lost?

I suppose you gain an immersion, and momentum. I don’t know who has that much time. But I do remember when I was watching The Wire, I would watch four or five episodes in an evening. But it’s like you went out and partied hard. Then you have to recover from it the next day. You don’t get enough sleep. It’s like anything else. Probably for purposes of immersion, it’s a good enough way to watch a show, but you do rob yourself of the anticipation of going Tuesday to Tuesday.

I always thought Persons of Interest was a strange case, because it’s always been popular and you hear people talking about it, but it never had the benefit of being on something like Netflix for people to catch up.  Do you think anything will change once it does hit Netflix?

The show won’t change, but maybe its viewership will. With any luck the viewership will increase and broaden. I think because of the hour in which it aired, and the network on which it aired I think we maybe missed a younger audience, or they weren’t targeted. It didn’t get sold to them. CBS tends to be a network for an older viewership. I’m actually surprised that older viewership has embraced the show the way they have. It’s been great that way. The people that stop me on the street to talk about Person of Interest are usually my age.

That’s interesting, because it’s always been one of those shows where even if maybe you don’t watch it, you somehow hear about it.

I think it’s really a topical show. Honestly, these issues of an artificial intelligence, that’s thought provoking. That’s worth thinking about. Every time I read that Google has an AI workshop, or a bunch of these corporations are developing this stuff, it gives me pause.

It did seem like such a strange thing not so long ago, and now it seems so possible.

It’s so plausible. And the implications of it are, as we see on Person of Interest, the implications are frightening.

It seems like there’s been a lot of TV and film about that idea, humanity’s relationship with AI – like Her or Ex Machina. How would you say Person of Interest defines that idea?

I think we’ve done a great job of folding that philosophical conundrum into the narrative format that we have on the show. What was once a show of stand-alone episodes — where each week there’s a good person and a bad person, and we prevent bad things from happening —  now it’s evolved into a little more of a science fiction mythology where we’re dealing with a long form narrative about that relationship with AI we’re discussing. Samaritan and the Machine. Who is running them if anyone is running them? What are the implications? How are the ways it can be abused, or beneficial? I think our writers are taking a thoughtful approach to it, using that set of stakes or philosophical questions to make entertainment. I think it’s entertainment that has a useful element to it. That’s a discussion worth having. I think about it a lot more than I used to.

How so?

I think most people, or maybe it’s my generation, I think I just thought AI was a far away thing in science fiction. More of an abstract concept than any kind of palpable thing. Now, in the last 20 years, we see how much more automated or how much more we’ve given over to electronics and machines.

What do you think Finch’s personal relationship to AI is on the show? It went from never personifying The Machine to something more fatherly.

The character seemed to always have a stake in defining The Machine as an object, or a tool, and not give it human qualities. But I think that has eroded over time. Not even so much gradually. I think towards the end of last season when things got so dire, and it looked like The Machine would be destroyed…when the Machine talks to him in the way it does, I think it’s hard for him to resist some personification. And an attachment to it like that of a creator, mentor, or possibly parent. I think he has a hard time holding on to that old definition he had as purely a tool and not an entity.

How far along is season five?

We’re shooting the fourth episode right now.

Is it one of those circumstances where you don’t know the story until you have the script in your hands?

Yeah, and that’s all I’ve ever known. That was the case with Lost. That’s the way I’ve been working for ten years. Episode 504 [of Person of Interest] commenced filming on Friday. I think I had the script late Tuesday or Wednesday. But it doesn’t matter, because I had such a heavy load on the previous episode, there was no way I could even read that script. In fact I still haven’t. But I don’t work on it until Wednesday, so until now and Wednesday I’ll read the script, mark out the scenes I have to do. There are other shows that don’t operate that way.

I think this way is interesting, because you’re sort of reacting as your character would react.

Yeah, and it might be distracting to know. Let’s say I already read all 13 episodes. I don’t know if you want to know the end.

Because Finch doesn’t know the end.

Right, and you might start connecting dots that don’t need connecting yet. That’s not your job. It’s a tradition among actors that the more you know about your character and your circumstances the better your performance will be. But I don’t think it necessarily holds in a drama like the ones I’ve been working on. I’m happiest just to play the scene of the day. One day at a time.

After spending so much time filming Lost in Hawaii, was it a relief or a disappointment to find a show based in New York?

Well New York is home. I was thrilled to find a show that intended to shoot here. Because I thought ‘oh, I can live and work in the same city.’ The thing I didn’t factor in was that my wife [Carrie Preston] was always going to be working somewhere else. True Blood was in LA, and now she’s on a sitcom for NBC that’s in LA. But everybody should have our set of problems.

It’s interesting to see, though, in the past couple of years how many more shows are filming in New York.

Oh yeah, New York rules now. There’s so many more shows shooting here than in Los Angeles. And I don’t want to make too much of it, but the states that offer the tax advantages are the states that end up getting the work. I don’t know why California snoozed so long on that, and let the production go away. I think there’s certainly more shows being shot here. Even more in Vancouver, than in LA. Especially one hour dramas. Something about the tax structure here was attractive, and there’s been an explosion in sound stages. They’re converting warehouses and old bakeries as fast as they can.

There’s an old prison out on Staten Island being turned into a full production studio.

It’s amazing. And every borough wants it. They want the busy-ness. They want the income.

I don’t know if you saw this, but [FX President John Landgraf] caused a stir by saying there is too much quality TV right now. Where do you think Person of Interest fits in to that?

Well, there sure are an awful lot of shows. And I know I’m missing out on wonderful television.

But I think Person of Interest is on the front line of a readjustment in the old network TV system. We’re a show that’s shooting 23 episodes every year in a landscape where people are shooting 10 or 12. I think we represent CBS taking a chance, trying to do something a little newer, a little hipper, less formulaic. It must be an interesting ride for CBS, because they’re maybe not that comfortable with where our show has gone. They may be scratching their heads going ‘wait, who is this appealing to? What’s the demographic? Who is it aimed at?’

It’s a tough show to categorize.

And we are a show that has a metamorphosis from a 23 episode season show to a 13 episode show on a big network. Maybe we’re part of a sea of change that happens with the big, old four networks. They may decide after watching cable succeed at it for 15 years now, they may decide on more micro seasons scattered throughout the schedule. Less dependence on the ‘Premiere in September, reruns in the summer’ format. I think they are going to have to get with the program with new product, all throughout the year.

You do see networks taking these chances on shows like Mr. Robot, and Person of Interest was one of the first where it was like, ‘this isn’t exactly a CBS show.’

I think that happened because of the pedigree of Jonathan Nolan and JJ Abrams. They were behind it, it was Bad Robot, they knew it would be smart, dark, and violent. It would be like half of a feature film every week.

Which is becoming the norm for TV.

I don’t know what to say about all the good writers going to TV, but now you see a lot of great actors are following them. I don’t know what that bodes for the film industry. The production values are equivalent, or approaching equivalency of feature film values. Maybe it’s some of that technological evolution, the refinement of video cameras and all of that. And computerization, and digitization. Which [laughs] brings us right back around to the inevitability of artificial intelligence.

At the end of the day I think season 5 will be worth watching. Here is our writing staff getting to impress now that they don’t have to string out their goods over 23 episodes. Now they have 13, and maybe 13 to wrap it up. How do you write a finale if you’re not sure it’s the finale? So it’ll be something splashy, but also a little ambiguous to leave the door open to go on further.