You may not know him by name, but you've no doubt seen Jason Katims' work. The accomplished showrunner has built a career out of his uncanny ability to regularly draw emotion from even the most cold-hearted of individuals through his dedication to intimate and truthful storytelling.
Whether it was via the personal triumphs of a small but passionate football-loving community on NBC and DirecTV's Friday Night Lights or the chaotic, interconnected lives of the large Braverman family in his adaptation of Parenthood, Katims has not only probably made you cry, but also likely made you a little proud to admit such vulnerability. It's a pity then that his latest project, CBS' cutting-edge medical drama Pure Genius (Thursday, 10/9c), is rather lifeless and cold as it attempts to selfishly manipulate those same emotions through rather predictable means.
The series stars Augustus Prew as James Bell, a Silicon Valley tech titan who uses his wealth and access to brand-new technologies to create Bunker Hill, a state-of-the-art hospital with the goal of curing the formerly incurable at no cost to the patients themselves. Because of Bell's background, Bunker Hill is a hospital that takes its cues from a startup, which is probably a pretty poor way to run a hospital, though I can't confirm this because I write about television for a living. Quite unsurprising is the reveal that Bell suffers from a rare disease that will render him unable to remember his own name in a few years, which means he has a rather selfish reason for building a hospital staffed with the best and brightest, something that undercuts his seemingly altruistic actions.
Appearing opposite Prew is Dermot Mulroney, fresh off a stint on Showtime's dark comedy Shameless, as Dr. Walter Wallace. The character is a renowned surgeon who was discharged from his last job after administering a new trial drug not yet approved by the FDA to a patient who later died. Naturally, in the world of TV, that somehow qualifies him to be the newly appointed chief of staff at Bunker Hill, a position that requires him to adjust his views of medicine so they're in line with the idealistic and futuristic version Bell's hard-working staff practices. Unfortunately for viewers, Mulroney's usual charisma isn't on full display.
A number of other really, really good-looking actors (Odette Annable, Reshma Shetty, Aaron Jennings, Ward Horton and Brenda Song) round out a cast of top-notch doctors and employees who truly believe that the intersection of advanced technology, non-existent traditional rules and regulations, experimental medicine and fancy tablets that look like something Tony Stark manufactured are going to change the future. All of this is meant to make Pure Genius stand out, but it actually does little to separate it from other medical procedurals.
Now, to be fair, all medical dramas are fairly routine, which means if you've seen one you've basically seen them all. Each week new patients are brought into the hospital and in between the few moments they have to themselves, the doctors and nurses attempt to save as many lives as they can. There will probably be a few misdiagnoses and a few doctors will probably argue that something can't be done before being proven incorrect, but at the end of the day, most of the patients are cured or saved by the competent hands of modern medical marvels and everyone goes home happy.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this set up — the impressively long runs of shows like ER and Grey's Anatomy reveal plenty of people continue to find pleasure within the routine year after year — it just means that with each new medical program that comes along, its writers need to find what sets the show apart and gives it an individual identity. Enter Pure Genius' aforementioned tech and a lack of any kind of practical hospital procedure.
Unfortunately for Pure Genius, the idealistic and hopeful notions of Bell and the hospital he runs are hampered by the fact its characters are currently little more than their basic character descriptions. No one is terribly personable or charming, and the stories being told don't resonate emotionally with viewers. With Bell (and the show by extension) patting himself on the back for graciously using his money to create this magical world where the impossible suddenly becomes possible, Pure Genius suffers on the most basic level. By relying on the predictable emotional manipulation that accompanies life-threatening situations to deliver its drama, the series is forgoing the opportunity to build characters with personalities and in turn pull real emotion from them.
Not only is that a shame, it's also rather surprising given Katims' proven history of framing even the most basic and familiar of human struggles in a way that adds new light and depth. His ability to make viewers feel something genuine has traditionally been his greatest strength. On Friday Night Lights, he and his team treated every character, no matter how minimal, with care so that even tertiary characters were engaging. On Parenthood, Kristina's (Monica Potter) cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment was easily one of the show's finest accomplishments over six incredible tear-inducing seasons. Admittedly, that kind of arc needs time to develop and that's not possible on a series that needs to wrap up a diagnosis and treatment in a single hour. But it's still hard to believe there's not an ounce of genuine emotion in a drama shepherded by Katims, especially when it's one that so obviously wants to be known for its romantic notions.
Pure Genius premieres Thursday, Oct. 27 at 10/9c on CBS.
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