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CBS has one final drama set to premiere during the 2016 fall TV season, and Pure Genius has a unique enough premise that it could have felt like the network was saving the best for last. Unfortunately, the first episode of the new series lacks a certain sense of urgency that could have set it apart from all the other new series that debuted this fall.
Pure Genius stars Dermot Mulroney as Dr. Walter Wallace, a renowned surgeon who has lost some of his prestige after making a controversial decision regarding a patient. He is recruited by Silicon Valley tech billionaire James Bell (Augustus Prew) to run the state-of-the-art hospital known as Bunker Hill. The Bunker Hill team uses cutting edge technology to diagnose, treat, and cure patients that conventional hospitals have dismissed. Cost is no object for the brilliant minds working for James.
Dr. Zoe Brockett (Odette Annable) is a skilled physician who isn't afraid to stand up to her billionaire boss, and Dr. Talaikha Channarayaptra (Reshma Shetty) is a neurosurgeon who is setting aside her traditional beliefs about medicine in order to embrace the new technological approach. Along with former criminal Dr. Malik Verlaine (Aaron Jennings) and programming prodigy Angie Cheng (Brenda Song), the Bunker Hill crew pulls out all the stops to try and convince Wallace that he should uproot his life and take the job. They tackle cases that range from obscure and esoteric to routine but pricy. Dr. Wallace must also decide if James has the right reasons for treatments before he says yea or nay to the job.
Creator Jason Katims of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood fame deserves credit for crafting a series with a unique take on the typical medical drama, but the execution of that unique take falls short. A standard that any piece of live-saving technology is available significantly lowers the stakes of the cases, no matter how fascinating the technology may be. There's no real question of whether or not something can happen; the impossible can happen when brilliant minds have access to everything in order to fix anything.
The lack of urgency could be overlooked for the sake of the exciting technology if only the lead characters were likable enough to sell the tonal shortcomings. Dr. Walter Wallace is appealing enough as the man to introduce viewers to the futuristic world of Bunker Hill; James Bell is another story entirely, and not in a good way.
James Hill is using his billions for a good cause when helping patients who were deemed helpless by mainstream physicians, and making a profit genuinely doesn't seem to be a priority for him. Unfortunately, the pilot episode's emphasis on his role as the mind behind everything at Bunker Hill gives the impression that he believes he can buy or bully his way into saving the day for any and all patients who are accepted at his hospital.
The tech genius' somewhat arrogant belief that technology is more valuable to diagnoses than the human element brought by experienced doctors is rewarded frequently, and it's hard to root for a man who makes big promises to patients and then expects physicians to make miracles. Sure, his deep pockets guarantee that the physicians have every resource, and there's more to him that first meets the eye, but he may be a hard guy to want to watch in the long run. The guy gives unwanted nicknames in one moment, then forgets the name of one of his most valuable employees in the next, and it's not especially appealing. Augustus Prew does seem capable enough as an actor. If Pure Genius gives him a more toned down James, he could become a highlight of the cast.
That said, the cast as a whole shows promise. Dermot Mulroney sells Dr. Wallace's building interest in Bunker Hill. Odette Annable and Reshma Shetty have potential as two of the existing doctors at Bunker Hill. Aaron Jennings may need to bring some more intensity to his role as a doctor who desperately wants to help folks from his former neighborhood, but he does well enough for a pilot. Hopefully Brenda Song will get more to do as Angie than wear skirts and have her name forgotten by her boss.
On the whole, Pure Genius isn't beyond help. The addition of an antagonistic force - whether in the form of a character or a limit to the resources available to the doctors - could raise the stakes in the show. A hurdle could make it easier to root for the staff at Bunker Hill to band together. The cast is capable, and the technology is fantastical enough to be interesting. The prognosis for Pure Genius isn't great as of now, but maybe miracles can happen to fix tonal and character issues and turn the series into something remarkable.