One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
The standard post-Grey’s Anatomy medical drama really only needs a few textbook elements to register as a crowd-pleasing hit for audiences: good casting, complicated science explained away like magic so people don’t question it, and a focus on something greater than mundane cases of the week, which normally amounts to soap opera drama and hook-up culture to keep viewers interested.
Obviously, there’s even more to it than that, but these few things really are the common thread in both the best and worst hospital shows that manage to stick around longer than one season. It’s not enough to have a good, even original idea at the forefront (like a change in location and tone) in order to justify the show’s existence.
And that’s a crucial question I have a feeling CBS thinks it’s answered in the network’a new hospidrama, Pure Genius, which was originally called “Bunker Hill” (the name of the show’s tech-savvy hospital), only to be changed for reasons that probably amount to confusion during focus group testing.
Pure Genius is mostly concerned with its two male leads, the first being an aging, but objectively brilliant doctor named Walter Wallace (the Breaking Bad comparisons don’t end there) who is shunned by the medical community for pushing the line of ethics a bit too far (though House, M.D. this man is not), played by Dermot Mulroney, whom many agree is one of the best working television actors to get traded in from the big screen.
This old-school doc gets brought in for a possible job at Bunker Hill, founded by young tech-billionaire James Bell, played by Augustus Prew. Think “slightly older Zuckerberg” and you’ve essentially written the character for CBS, though to Prew’s credit, he’s easily the most energetic presence Pure Genius has managed to employ.
Bunker Hill is on the cusp of a medical revolution, brandishing breakthrough technologies to cure diseases and get around scientific impossibilities. The show goes almost a bit too far at times to push how its cutting-edge gizmo approach makes it a different contender from a wealth of competition in this genre, but it sometimes amounts little more to making the tablets and computers see-through. Because apparently, Los Angeles can’t think of another way to impress us with what the future might look like.
Still, Pure Genius does make a good case for how its format is at least set up to provide varying moments of intrigue that go beyond magical fixes to increasingly complicated medical cases. The central conflict between Bell and Wallace, for example, comes from a suspicion around Bell’s true motives for creating Bunker Hill in the first place, a moral controversy that’s sure to be mined efficiently over the course of a full season or longer. Add to that the fact that Bell has enough resources to essentially buy any new technology startup he wants (which is already exploited in the pilot), and you’re set for a writer’s room that can go in pretty much any direction warranted.
And said writers prove to be less than slouches in the pilot, pushing several medical subplots through a meaty hour that are different and interesting enough to keep viewers tuned in until the final moments. As far as new CBS dramas go, that’s a breath of fresh air worth celebrating.
That said, Pure Genius is by no means an excellent show deserving of blind recommendation. Mileage will certainly vary depending on a viewer’s saturation in both CBS shows and the procedural medical genre as a whole. For many in this camp, Pure Genius offers few more than gimmicks and good lighting, plus the satisfaction of seeing Silicon Valley portrayed in a mostly believable, digestible way. Moving forward, the show would do well to continue its attitude of consequential discovery, avoiding easy solutions explained emphatically by doctors who are clearly actors.
Speaking of which, there are plenty of promising stars in this cast who, for the most part, work serviceably well together. Odette Annable makes a gracious slide from last year’s ill-fated The Grinder and is given a somewhat weighted role as the disgruntled “reality police” who works up the courage to speak up against Bell. Aaron Jennings has a more energetic role, contending with technology that monitors various patients around the Bay Area. Brenda Song, Reshma Shetty, and Ward Horton, meanwhile, aren’t given too much to do yet as relegated Bunker Hill staff currently around to provide exposition and some reactionary states of the union in order to bring Wallace up to speed. But for now, there aren’t any obvious misfires in the casting.
All that said, Pure Genius has more going for it than most modern medical dramas that emerge dead on arrival. Mulroney is an A-list win for the show, and Prew could be the eventual dark horse, assuming the writers learn to adapt and constrain his performance into something more palatable. As it stands, however, the series has various issues and flaws that plague most new CBS fall offerings this year: unique ideas that can’t make up for overly familiar plotting.
There’s enough to like and get excited about when watching the futuristic, tech-focused Pure Genius, assuming you aren’t already bored to tears with modern medical dramas.