While partisan debates about how to fix the American healthcare system rage on, “Pure Genius,” a medical drama premiering Thursday on CBS, offers a solution. What we really need in the U.S., it suggests, are a few Silicon Valley-style “disruptors.”
Also: huge jellyfish tanks.
Executive produced by Jason Katims, the series follows James Bell (Augustus Prew), who in the legally mandated style of all fictional tech billionaires, wears goofy shoes to work, sorely lacks interpersonal skills and is into various, possibly incompatible, forms of Eastern spirituality.
At the tender age of 31, he’s already amassed a huge fortune and spent much of it building Bunker Hill, a state-of-the-art Palo Alto hospital where patients are treated for free in surroundings that include the aforementioned jellyfish tank — plus a Japanese garden and a whole bunch of enormous touchscreens.
James has recruited a team of brilliant and conspicuously attractive medical professionals to work at Bunker Hill. He also hopes to woo Dr. Walter Wallace (Dermot Mulroney), a gifted surgeon recently fired for treating an 8-year-old patient with an experimental drug not approved by the FDA -- the kind of behavior that would raise eyebrows in the real world but qualifies as “maverick” on television.
The future of medicine, according to “Pure Genius,” lies in gadgets straight out of the Sharper Image catalog. For some reason, Bunker Hill has a scanner thingamajig that can make perfectly scaled plastic action figures in 30 seconds. Staffers use translucent smartphones (because heaven knows we should make those things easier to lose) and can turn virtually any flat surface into a giant tablet touchscreen at the touch of a finger.
How any of these devices actually help patients is unclear, but they give the actors something to do with their hands while delivering expository dialogue, which seems to be the real point. (Between this show, “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “Bull,” the implausible touchscreens have reached truly epidemic levels on CBS.)
To the extent it has one, the big idea of “Pure Genius” is that technology can make healthcare more efficient. It’s not a particularly radical or controversial notion, but -- particularly in light of recent headlines surrounding the once-lauded health technology company Theranos -- the show’s wide-eyed, absolute faith in gadgetry is not just misguided, it’s obnoxious. (There’s even an awkward reference early in the pilot to the power of finger-prick blood tests.)
“Pure Genius” is almost laughably dismissive of the work of real medical professionals. James pulls up a patient’s records on one of those ubiquitous touchscreens, runs it through a program and within seconds, diagnoses a history of domestic abuse. Though he’s not a doctor, James weighs in on patient care, because he runs his hospital like a startup. “No hierarchy. No offices. Best idea wins,” he smugly explains.
This worshipful vibe even translates to the show’s aesthetics: Bathed in white light with lots of camera flares, the hospital is a scenic techno-utopia resembling the version of heaven you see in movies about the afterlife.
Ironically, none of this inventiveness extends to the actual storytelling. “Pure Genius” is a formulaic procedural posing as a TED talk, a standard case-of-the-week medical drama gussied up with high-tech gear and dubious science.
And for a show that glorifies technology, “Pure Genius” also leans awfully heavily on manipulative human drama. The pilot revolves around a cancer-stricken expectant mother whose fetus is just approaching viability and a 15-year-old in a coma who could be removed from life support if she continues to be nonresponsive. (No points for guessing how those stories turn out.)
In a twist visible from outer space, it’s also revealed that James was motivated to open the hospital for rather self-interested reasons: He has a rare degenerative disease that means, within a few years, “he won’t be able to remember his own name.”
This level of sentiment is to be expected from Katims, a writer known for heartstring-tuggers like “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights,” but it feels out of place in such a technophilic show.
It also doesn’t help that “Pure Genius” is built around not one, but two inert leads. Here’s where some of that CBS formula -- particularly, the swaggering, wise-cracking male protagonist -- might have come in handy.
Prew spends much of his screen time with an index finger pressed to his lips, a Jobsian gesture meant to indicate how his character “thinks different.” He plays James with a flat, almost robotic affect that may be intentional but nevertheless places a kind of charisma void at the center of the show.
Usually low-key but appealing, Mulroney almost seems to be sleepwalking here, conveying little of his character’s supposed passion or skepticism.
Their characters are supposed to play off each other— James the socially awkward tech whiz, Walter the medical genius with the human touch — but instead they are as dynamic a pairing as Saltines and skim milk.
And there’s no app in the world that can fix that. (Yet.)
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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