Michael Emerson on Person of Interest's Big Flashback: Reveals Aren't Glacial, Like on Lost

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If you’re checking out Person of Interest and are surprised to hear that CBS’ freshman drama this Thursday at 9/8c will already delve into the mystery of “The Machine,” you are in good company. Series star Michael Emerson, who became all too familiar with Lost‘s storytelling and secret-keeping, was caught a bit off guard as well.

“I was used to the more glacial style of revealing that we had on Lost, where you would just get a little bit of a tease,” the Emmy winner tells TVLine. “I thought, ‘Oh, they’ll have to establish the rhythm of [Person of Interest] and the way we prevent crime before they started exploring [the Machine],’ but I think it’s a good move. It lets the audience know early on that we’re telling a story every week, but we’re also telling a longer, intriguing story.”

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The Machine, for the uninitiated, is a behemoth of a computer that Emerson’s Mr. Finch constructed in the wake of 9/11. Designed to flag possible terrorist threats for the U.S. government, the Machine also coughs up the Social Security number of individuals who are on their way to being part of smaller yet nonetheless serious crimes. That’s where Reese, a former CIA op played by Jim Caviezel, comes in, recruited by Finch to try to stop said crimes.

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Just last month, TVLine questioned POI executive producer Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight) on such a machine’s viability, and he maintained that given the technology that is out there today, this CBS drama is more rooted in “science fact” than science fiction.

Still, I had to share with Emerson my disbelief that a credit card purchase bundled with a toll booth swipe and a cell phone call could ever add up to someone being ID’d as a crime victim or perpetrator. He countered, “What we’re talking about here is a massive crunch of data — weeks of things, not just two or three events — and some beyond-sophisticated pattern recognition software. Like, buying and discarding untraceable cell phones would make a little red light go off on the Machine, or if you were regularly moving sums of money, or traveling in a certain pattern, or making certain contacts…. Within the logic construct of the show, it seems to be fairly well-explained.”

Triggering this exploration of the Machine’s origin is this week’s person of interest, who is already dead at the time he is flagged. “It can’t know everything, so what if it kicks out the number of a person that’s dead – what is one to make of that?” Emerson muses. “It puzzles Finch, but they proceed anyway. Because at the end of the day, the Machine is like Finch’s child and on some level he trusts it implicitly.”

Emerson says the ensuing flashbacks show us “a younger, happier Finch,” then “lay the groundwork for whatever trauma or loss will set him spinning off on the course he’s on now.” (The services of Lost lad Sterling Beaumon, however, were not required. Says Emerson with a big laugh, “We don’t go back that far!”)

Speaking of Ben Linus, how much did Emerson struggle with making Finch distinct enough a character? After all, the two gents both share a specific verbal cadence and an aura of mystery. “I’m not spending a lot of energy or, frankly, thought on that issue anymore,” Emerson admits. “Before we began, I had a number of things I had written on a notepad about how he would be different, but a lot of them turned out not right to play — and it’s no good to be different for its own sake and not have the scene stick.”

Instead, Emerson listens to a scene “as if it were a piece of music, trying to ring the right notes. I certainly prefer certain notes – having to do with ambiguity or mystery, occasional flashes of drollery, or I’ll use a rising or falling inflection or emphasize a word that wouldn’t normally get emphasized. But some of it is inexplicable to me, except to say it’s my instinct.”

One mystery that won’t be solved in Person of Interest‘s second outing, however, is how Finch came to acquire his conspicuous limp. “It does rise out of the backstory we begin to explore in Episode 2,” he says, “but that is a whole other story unto itself.”

Comments (20)

  • Fringe is another show that has done away with “the glacial reveal” – its season cliffhangers typically get resolved in 3-4 episodes – so this is good to hear…

    Comment by Donna – September 29, 2011 08:45 AM PDT  Reply To This Post
  • Really looking forward to this show and to Emerson on my screen again. He is one of our best actors, and can deliver a line like no other. While the “big brother” aspects of the show are a wee bit frightening, it’s watching Emerson that will keep me hooked.

    Comment by Liana in San Diego – September 29, 2011 08:58 AM PDT  Reply To This Post
    • I totally agree. I think we should let Finch develop as his own character and not expect “Ben Linus 2.0″ even though Emerson certainly is the same ingenius actor.

      Comment by kirads09 – September 29, 2011 12:17 PM PDT  Reply To This Post
  • Wait a minute, this week it spits out a number of a guy that is already dead? I thought the premise they’ve been pushing all along is to prevent the death from happening. They are changing things up already? Audiences won’t like that. I for one really want to like this show.

    Comment by ju;ie – September 29, 2011 08:58 AM PDT  Reply To This Post
    • The dead guy is this week’s POI, and the POI is not always the subject of the crime (and the crime is not always a killing).

      Comment by Matt Webb Mitovich – September 29, 2011 09:13 AM PDT  Reply To This Post
  • Love this show and I want to know why isn’t it on itunes yet for download??!! Really sucks.

    Comment by Dave – September 29, 2011 09:07 AM PDT  Reply To This Post
    • Because it’s CBS, and they do whatever they have to to force up the live numbers. What sucks is that it works, and the proof is in their massive ratings leads.

      Comment by John – September 29, 2011 09:30 AM PDT  Reply To This Post
      • Well, they’re not getting me in their ratings. I’d love to watch the show but I am almost never able to watch live television. So, if its not available on iTunes they’ll just have to count me out.

        Comment by disgruntled – November 25, 2011 08:34 PM PDT  Reply To This Post
        • We rely on iTunes and Hulu to watch programs….CBS won’t be getting us in their ratings either.

          Comment by marsha – December 9, 2011 06:39 PM PDT  Reply To This Post
  • I would watch Michael Emerson read the phone book. Okay, well maybe I exaggerated, but I am just so thrilled to have him back on my TV every week! All those Lost people seem to be finding new homes, and that’s great because they’re all terrific.

    Comment by PattiR – September 29, 2011 09:39 AM PDT  Reply To This Post
  • This is such a dilemma. I love Michael Emerson, but I hate procedurals, and this show hasn’t promised me enough of an over-arching story arc to keep me satisfied. (Also, my tivo can only take so much at a time.) Anyone else have this problem?

    Comment by Andie – September 29, 2011 11:48 AM PDT  Reply To This Post
  • They are changing it already? Typical JJ. sorry but I didn’t like the pilot very much but always give shows a second look but to change the rules already is a cop out really. I love Emmersons work but the fact is I am over JJ’s.

    Comment by Guy – September 29, 2011 01:45 PM PDT  Reply To This Post
    • Nothing in this story says they are changing anything.

      Comment by Matt Webb Mitovich – September 29, 2011 01:52 PM PDT  Reply To This Post
      • The machine spits out dead people numbers….we were led to believe the machine prevents crimes,not reports about it afterward.That is changing the premise.

        Comment by shaun – September 29, 2011 03:18 PM PDT  Reply To This Post
        • Just because people are reported dead doesn’t mean they are. I thought there might be something like a killer using the identity of a person who died at a young age like in the movie Day of the Jackal

          Comment by gb – September 30, 2011 06:48 AM PDT  Reply To This Post
  • My guess on his limp is that he tried to handle the numbers on his own before and became injured.That’s why he hired a pro to do it instead.

    Comment by shaun – September 29, 2011 03:17 PM PDT  Reply To This Post
  • I really love this show and was pleasantly surprised at how much. Caviezel and Emerson are great and the backstory intrigues me. Check out my blogpost on it asn other new shows – http://watchwithmai.wordpress.com/2011/09/29/persons-and-shows-of-interest/

    Comment by MandalayMai – September 29, 2011 07:27 PM PDT  Reply To This Post
  • I love the subtext when Finch told Reese what would happen to the office workers. He looked at the manager as he said, “…some would be fired.” LOL!

    Comment by s – September 30, 2011 08:46 PM PDT  Reply To This Post
  • I was wary about getting too invested in this show, having been burned with Flash Forward but I was hooked from two or three minutes into the first episode of Person Of Interest. The premise intrigued me, the setting thrilled me (I adore New York) and of course I recognised “the guy from LOST”. While I was initially freaked out by Finch, I immediately took to Reese, I’d heard of Jim Caviezel because of his role as Jesus but not actually seen any of his work before. I like the unlikely pairing of Finch and Reese, they work well together and I’ve even begun to get quite fond of the little geeky guy (an affectionate term here). Reese is mean, moody and mysterious and that also works for me :)
    After FF, I was delighted to read that Person Of Interest has got a second season and I look forward to seeing where The Machine leads our vigilantes…
    (I am writing this as a UK fan)

    Comment by v23474 – September 7, 2012 02:15 PM PDT  Reply To This Post
  • Finch has inserted part of the machine into himself. That’s why he limps. ;)

    Comment by POIfan – November 22, 2012 03:43 AM PDT  Reply To This Post

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