Michael Emerson, left, as Finch, the wealthy software genius who invented… (John Clifford / Warner Bros )
Reporting from New York — — On a sunny summer afternoon in downtown Manhattan, several uniformed cops are nervously pacing outside a police station. Inside, a hostage situation is brewing.
A sinister-looking man hovers in the corner while a police officer lies on the ground. Across the hall, a tall man with a ski mask threatens two detectives. Scared and confused, the officer on the floor reaches for his revolver and squeezes off a round.
Then the director yells cut.
The incidents aren't part of a New York City crime scene; instead, they represent key moments in an episode of the CBS thriller "Person of Interest," which offers a dark and conspiracy-minded view of the country's biggest metropolis.
In other words, it's Gotham as imagined by J.J. Abrams, who is in fact one of the show's executive producers. Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher Nolan and co-writer of the "Dark Knight" movies, created the show with Greg Plageman; the pair serve as executive producers and show runners.
The sinister-looking man turns out to be Michael Emerson, who played master manipulator Benjamin Linus on "Lost," while the person in the ski mask is actor Jim Caviezel (Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ"). The police station is actually a municipal building that houses archives and records. The uniformed cops? They're extras.
Abrams and his production company are shepherding the series, in which a shadowy billionaire named Finch (Emerson) enlists the disgraced (and presumed dead) former special-ops agent Reese (Caviezel) to help him resolve impending crimes. Finch learns of those crimes via an elaborate post-Sept. 11 camera system that tracks New Yorkers with chilling — but possibly life-saving — ubiquity. In a twist, the camera and its attendant computer system in each episode turn up nothing but a subject's Social Security number; it's up to Finch and Reese to figure out if the person is a witness, a perpetrator or a victim.
The show blends character drama (exploring who Reese is and what he did in his previous life is one of its central mysteries) and a traditional self-contained procedural format in which new crimes are presented and solved each week. It sets all of this against a city in which surveillance is a double-edged sword.
"We're so accustomed to having a lens on us. But the question becomes 'Who's on the other side of it?'" Abrams said. "There's an assumption that someone is watching, but do they have our best interests in mind?"
"Person of Interest" features a noteworthy assemblage of talent. But what its creators feel really distinguishes the hourlong drama, which will premiere Sept. 22, is its timeliness.
"The world is becoming a strange place, and our show is about the way technology, both that which the government imposes on us and that which we impose on ourselves, can intrude on our lives," Nolan said.
"Person of Interest" took root several years ago when Nolan proposed to Abrams a series that took the enhanced surveillance methods that both science and the Patriot Act made possible and crafted a crime drama around it.
The character of Reese, whose moral standing is ambiguous at best, lends the idea extra complexity. "I think what makes him so interesting," said Caviezel, "is that he's capable of things that are very, very good and very, very bad."
As the series gained momentum within CBS, the creators decided to use HD cameras for many shots, giving it a cinematic tableau that Emerson said makes production "like shooting a movie each week." (He, like his costars Caviezel and Taraji P. Henson, who plays a detective, says viewers can expect a lot of surprises — if only because the actors themselves are given only small bits of information at a time as they move through production.)
In addition to that level of mystery, Abrams is known for shows that take place in an alternative, even fantastical, realm. But despite the show's they're-always-watching conceit, Nolan insisted that "Person of Interest" is grounded in reality.
"I know I sound like a tinfoil-wearing nut cake," he said with a laugh, "but these [surveillance] machines exist. The government has been building these things for at least 15 years."