October 28, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Pure Genius”


PURE GENIUS:  Thursday 10PM on CBS – Change the Channel

One of the oddities of CBS’s medical drama PURE GENIUS is that its setting–a wildly overfunded institute that boasts the ultimate in cutting edge technology, regularly offers miracles to its patients, and is backed by an arrogant billionaire mastermind–would ordinarily be revealed as the sinister base of operations for some kind of high-tech conspiracy that would endanger more people than it saved.  Michael Crichton and Robin Cook made entire careers out of exactly those kinds of stories.  But Pure Genius embraces its God complex; its doctors aren’t tempting fate, they’re superheroes.  (And yet the show still feels creepy.)

The bigger puzzle is that Pure Genius‘s own mastermind is Jason Katims (working with Sarah Watson, a writer/producer on Katims’s Parenthood and About A Boy).  This high-concept semi-sci-fi procedural is distant from Katims’s strengths, which tends toward the naturalistic heights of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, and while it may be admirable in the abstract for such a talented writer to stretch out of his comfort zone, Pure Genius strongly suggests that he’s strayed too far from home.

Katims’s best work is all about deep-dive characterization, yet the Pure Genius pilot barely bothers to create characters at all.  James Bell (Augustus Pew) made his billions from some kind of app (of course), and now he’s poured his resources into the Bunker Hill Institute, which chooses patients with impossible maladies and then invents or acquires the technology to save them.  That technology, which includes a micro-computer that can be ingested and provide real-time study of a body’s interior, and a head-band that can communicate with the comatose, doesn’t really exist for the most part, although another plot thread turns on using a 3D printer to practice intricate surgery, a storyline featured on Grey’s Anatomy several seasons ago.  In the course of the pilot, we learn two things about Bell:  he has a crush on Dr. Zoe Brockett (Odette Annable), and also a potentially Tragic Secret, which to no viewer’s surprise explains why he started the institute to begin with.

Bell is as obsessed with gathering the people he wants as the equipment, and the main story of the pilot is his courting of Dr. Walter Wallace (Dermot Mulroney) to join the staff.  The intent seems to be for Wallace to be a counterpoint to Bell, slightly old-fashioned and more empathetic than technological, but since literally all we know about Wallace at the end of the hour is that he has children in Ohio (whom he’ll only see on the weekends after he moves to the Bay Area for his new job at Bunker Hill), and since Bell always defies disbelief and is right that the tech will save his patients, it’s not much of a contest.

The other characters are even less developed than Bell and Wallace, ciphers who exist to spew out exposition and jargon, and look thoughtful in between.  Pew, for his part, sounds like the British actor trying to sound American that he is, and his performance is too much Jesse Eisenberg as Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs.  Mulroney fares better, mostly by fading into the background, even in the scenes that feature him.  The script’s only levity is supplied by Wallace forgetting one of his staffers’ names, and its only distinctive note is the decision to emphasize the Christianity of what turns out to be the abusive husband of a patient.

Even with veteran pilot director David Semel behind the camera, Pure Genius feels antiseptic and impersonal, a result of the vacant characters and suspense-less medical stories.  Watching it, you might find yourself wishing that Bell was hiding a plot to turn his patients into androids, or that Wallace was a secret psychopath.  At least that could be engrossing.  As it is, Pure Genius is just dull.

NETWORK FINAL:  A Blank Prescription Pad.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."