TV Review: ‘Pure Genius’

Sonia Saraiya

The twist of “Pure Genius” is in the premise. The new show is an otherwise rote medical drama from CBS, with one surprising difference — it takes place in a tech utopia. The medical center of “Pure Genius,” Bunker Hill, is funded by a billionaire philanthropist who — for as-yet unknown motivations — offers cutting-edge medical treatment for any kind of disorder, absolutely free.

Healthcare expenses being what they are, it’s hard to imagine that even a billionaire’s money could fund such an enterprise for long, especially because Bunker Hill appears to be less a hospital than a principality outside San Francisco, an oasis of tranquil forest and sleek architecture. But precisely because medical debt was, in 2014, the number-one cause of personal bankruptcy in America, Bunker Hill is an alluring fantasy. Other shows set in hospitals focus on the collision between social issues and medical care — staff shortages, overcrowded wards, mass casualties. In “Pure Genius,” the starting point is one of magnificent abundance — of not just money, but everything that comes with it: skill, focus, attention, and time.

It’s interesting, but curiously stakes-lowering. Bunker Hill’s raison d’être is that with enough resources, they can fix anything. James Bell (Augustus Prew), the tech mogul who founded the hospital, declares: “I didn’t build this hospital to deliver bad news.” And indeed — because of Bunker Hill’s extensive funds, its willingness to use experimental therapies, and its vast array of equipment, every story in the pilot has some kind of happy ending.

It’s also an ethical nightmare. “Pure Genius” is a bubble where marrying startup worldview — less red tape, more innovation, encouraged risk-taking — to the medical worldview — red tape, layers of redundancies, years of training — is a problem-free enterprise. Lead Walter Wallace (Dermot Mulroney) comes to Bunker Hill after being fired from his last position for administering experimental chemotherapy to an 8-year-old cancer patient. James, the billionaire, and the other characters in the show laud Walter for this, suggesting that by trying a new therapy, Walter was bucking the oppressive system to do the right thing. But this is somewhat obscured by the fact that the patient died — possibly as a result of the new medicine, and possibly because the patient was going to die anyway. Of course, there is always a case to be made against bureaucratic red tape. But there is also a case to be made for our system of rules, especially when lives are at stake.

At any rate, “Pure Genius” is not that interested in interrogating the world it inhabits, at least by the end of the pilot. The introductory hour settles the show into a warm and fuzzy rhythm of romantically entangled doctors and the power of technological advancement to radically alter life and death as we know it. It’s inspiring, as one might expect of a drama from showrunner Jason Katims, who has previously done family- and community-oriented dramas like “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood.” Echoing the strengths of those earlier shows, the mission-oriented ensemble falls together with surprising ease and even shared humor, and “Pure Genius” devotes much attention to design and imagination — creating devices and patient-care environments that envision a frictionless near-future. But it’s also kind of blank; without either dramatic stakes or grounded reality, “Pure Genius”’ is flat and saccharine, a longer version of the carefully pristine world seen in pharmaceutical commercials.

There is a possible story here — about how Bunker Hill’s eventual, inevitable failures challenge the foundations of the institution, which in turn requires the characters to dig into the implications of this premise. But like many procedurals, “Pure Genius” seems set up to only let in cracks of reality through the revolving array of intriguing patients. The pilot clumsily tries to tell a story about abortion in a situation where a pregnant woman has cancer — putting her in a conundrum where either she would die or her baby would. But rather than engage with what a choice like that might mean, the doctors of “Pure Genius” resolve to solve the problem by saving both. A happy ending, to be sure — and a storytelling choice that neatly renders any discussion of abortion moot.

It’s a lovely idea, to solve thorny political issues with technological advances. But it underscores how simplistic the series feels. “Pure Genius” is less a show than the ongoing adventures of a fantasy world — where the often bloody problems of human existence can be solved with pristine equipment, and happy endings are administered like aspirin. Its appeal is that it isn’t anything like the world we live in. That is also its biggest problem.

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