As the soul of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, Jason Katims has developed a following so devoted that it could arguably be called—as Esquire recently did—a “cult.” Although his work is diverse in setting and scope, encompassing everything from teenaged aliens to small-town football coaches to members of a fictional religion, the one thing uniting Katims’ stories is emotional complexity and richness of character, as well as a tendency to make viewers cry. But the word “cult” could describe his audience as well; though critically beloved and passionately supported, none of Katims’ shows have exactly been ratings smashes. It’s why his work is often held up as an exemplar of how grounded, honest television will always struggle to survive against sensationalist soap operas and formulaic procedurals.
“Fine,” Katims’ newest series, Pure Genius, seems to say. “You don’t want real human drama? How about a world where all the drama has been removed, like a bug fixed by a software update?” Katims’ foray into medical intrigue—after the promising-sounding, but notably more realistic County was dropped by NBC—exists in that sort of blissfully lobotomized state at the very core of its premise, which follows the team at Bunker Hill, a hospital so technologically advanced, there’s seemingly no problem that can’t be solved without a bit of fiddling on one of the doctors’ many translucent touch screens. Bunker Hill is a place of infinite possibilities and boundless technocratic optimism, something the show’s characters remind you of every few minutes with some lofty speech about how they’re here to “change the world” or by very sincerely exclaiming, “Welcome to the revolution!” It’s every bit as uninvolving as that sounds, akin to watching a corporate video created to dazzle shareholders with its visions of iPad ultrasounds and surgeons practicing on 3-D-printed hearts.
Whirring at the center of this Plexiglas utopia is James Bell (Augustus Prew), a billionaire computer whiz who’s every bit as whatever about bureaucracy and proper medical procedure as he is collared shirts. Bell lives within his literal bubble of a building, striding its glass hallways in his open-toed sandals and blazers over graphic tees while excitedly spouting buzzwords like “drill down on” and “information matrix,” before pausing to cockily disrupt the very 20th-century notion of mortality with lines like, “I didn’t build this hospital to deliver bad news.” Bell’s arrogance—which includes dismissing the actual, trained doctors in his staff as the “reality police” and not even bothering to learn their real names—is meant to be tempered by his obvious passion for helping people. In addition to his vague practice of Eastern spirituality, there are some other, even more telegraphed glimpses of a softer side, including his bluntly established pining over a colleague, played by House veteran Odette Annable, and the obvious reveal of a deeply personal connection to his work that’s dropped within an equivalent thud by the pilot’s second act. Suffice it to say, this not-a-physician also needs to digitally heal thyself.
Dr. Computer’s appropriately crusty foil arrives in Dermot Mulroney’s Walter Wallace, a surgeon recruited by Bell after he’s discharged for trying an experimental chemotherapy treatment on an 8-year-old cancer patient. Wallace wanders Bunker Hill in a constant state of bemusement, regarding all of Bell’s “gizmos and gadgets” with an expression familiar to anyone who’s told their dad to ditch his albums and sign up for Spotify. His skepticism that any of Bell’s silly gewgaws and doodads could replace his old, trusty MRIs is meant to be Pure Genius’ central conflict—a clash between tomorrow’s innovation and The Way Things Have Always Been Done that’s echoed in the team’s encounters with all the myriad paramedics and dispassionate ER docs they swoop in to save people from. And it lasts approximately 35 minutes, or about as long as it takes for Bell to diagnose a patient as a victim of domestic violence by furiously tip-tapping away at an algorithm.
That’s the problem with Pure Genius in a nutshell: It presents a world where Wallace can grouse, “This isn’t programming a computer!” about a risky surgery, only for Bell to disprove him immediately with the touch of a button. Granted, medical procedurals demand a certain reassuring predictability. As Annable herself can attest, there was no disease so incurable that House couldn’t snark it into remission. But in a hospital with infinite resources, where nothing—not even a months-long coma—presents a challenge that can’t be miraculously overcome by 10 seconds of Googling and throwing some money at it, the show manages to reduce actual life or death to no stakes at all. Bunker Hill even boasts a massive, massively creepy room straight out of Minority Report (or salvaged from CBS’s own Person Of Interest) where the doctors can identify and respond to medical emergencies before they happen, all thanks to some other magic computer bullshit it barely bothers to explain.
Of course, this—all of this—could be waved away as easily as terminal cancer if the character work were as strong here as the rest of Katims’ shows. Unfortunately, in the pilot, at least, there’s little holding his ensemble together besides a general eagerness. Annable, a barely used Brenda Song, and Aaron Jennings’ gangbanger-turned-medical superhero who’s out to save his old neighborhood certainly have room to coalesce into an appreciably quirky supporting cast, and Mulroney does typically okay, if low-key work. But aside from creating a feeling of pleasantly anesthetizing warmth, aided by some sun-dappled montages and well-placed indie-pop ballads, so far it’s not enough to overcome the irritating presence of Prew’s Bell, who—no matter how many scenes of him sitting, teary-eyed, by patients’ bedsides, or the overt attempts to make his social awkwardness seem endearing—still comes off like every smug, bottle-service-ordering douche in Silicon Valley. Even the last-minute revelation of Bell’s tragic backstory does little to create empathy, especially after the show has taught us that there’s probably an app for that.
As it is, by the time Mulroney asks Pure Genius’ defining, clumsy question—“Are we here to save the world, or are we here to save James Bell?”—it’s hard to believe anyone would care about them doing either of those things. Like the tears and viscera of medical practice it reduces to so many virtual reality graphics and oddly bloodless operating rooms, Pure Genius takes the human heart of Katims’ storytelling and replaces it with the CBS procedural’s coldly pristine machinery. It might net Katims his biggest audience to date, but it’s unlikely to make it feel much of anything.