“It’s Network TV” Shouldn’t Excuse Pure Genius

CBS doesn’t deserve a pass for making idiotic tech propaganda that’s one-tenth as curious about the issues it raises as it should be.

Augustus Prew and Dermot Mulroney in Pure Genius.
Augustus Prew and Dermot Mulroney in Pure Genius.

Sonja Flemming/CBS

It feels unsporting to pick on new network shows. The flailing networks keep flailing, most obviously in the fall, and it seems boorish to belabor this, like telling a neighbor whose house has been falling down for years that his house is still falling down. After a while, you figure he must know and just smile politely as you dodge his falling shingles on your way to work. But derision is a form of respect: Expectations can only be disappointed if you have them. A sighing acceptance of the bland and bad offerings of network TV is the ultimate show of disdain: There go the hapless networks, trying and failing again. All to say that, as I go HAM on CBS’s stink bomb of a medical drama Pure Genius, it may seem like I am kicking a dog when it is down, but instead I am appropriately savaging a billion-dollar corporate behemoth for making idiotic tech propaganda that’s about one-tenth as curious about the issues it raises as it should be.

Pure Genius stars Dermot Mulroney as Dr. Walter Wallace, a world-class surgeon who recently lost his job for putting a dying patient on a trial medication that failed. Though Mulroney makes, at a generous estimate, three facial expressions—quizzical, skeptical, dumbfounded—for the entire first episode, this act of defiance is meant to establish him as a righteous rebel. He cares more for his patients than bureaucracy, and this gets him recruited by James Bell (Augustus Prew), a tech-billionaire wunderkind recently on the cover of Time, out to “revolutionize” the health care system with a small but well-endowed facility called Bunker Hill. With its staff of doctors, engineers, and workaday smarty-pants, Bunker Hill cherry-picks interesting and difficult medical cases from across the country, flies the patients to it, assumes their expenses, and then reliably works scientific miracles on them using the ethos of Silicon Valley, in which all problems, including those of the body, can be solved by appropriately applied intelligence and the dictatorial optimism of a motivated billionaire.

Pure Genius is a medical procedural set inside of a startup. It celebrates technology by showcasing a plethora of cool screens and suggesting that mortality merely awaits disruption. Upon arrival, everyone on the team submits to a full-body scan, in order to make a 3-D printout action figure that sits on the mantel in James’ office, where nonhierarchical meetings take place in which the medical opinions of professionals are no more important than the opinion of anyone else. The doctors don’t use charts, they use a device that flashes a high-tech version of a chart on the wall, the sleek version of the wall of crazy, come to heal us all. Patients can control the décor around them, because studies show that living among the high-res screen saver of a patient’s choosing increases his or her sense of control. James never meets a patient he doesn’t promise a cure, over the grumblings of his medical staff, only to inspire that staff to deliver a miracle, dressed up by the show as science.

New technologies can, will, and are leading to advances in medicine, but the recent fiasco of, say Theranos, suggests that not every part of Silicon Valley’s style is immediately scalable to health care concerns. Pure Genius bumps smack into all sorts of thorny and complicated issues—privacy, mortality—and runs right over them, like they don’t exist. Pure Genius was—somehow—created by Jason Katims, the showrunner of Friday Night Lights and the creator of Parenthood and, thus, a man with a known skill for a kind of heart-tugging emotional realism. I have no idea what happened in the making of Pure Genius, but it is impossible to tell that Katims was involved, on the level of performance or intelligence.

Pure Genius doesn’t seem to care about privacy. A doctor who grew up in a bad neighborhood in Los Angeles and was disturbed by the poor health outcomes in his community has developed wearable technology that helps Bunker Hill closely monitor conditions like diabetes and asthma from a tracking command center that the National Security Agency surely helped fund. Bunker Hill has access to hundreds of thousands of medical records, not available just to doctors but to everyone who works there, in order to assess patterns. James—not a medical professional, though the show acts like having billions of dollars automatically confers an M.D.— runs willy-nilly through all this information, despite having a medical history he doesn’t want to share but that seems basically Googleable.

More outrageous is how often James trumps his doctors. James has some of the “quirks” of a founder: He talks fast and irrepressibly and likes to give nicknames. He seems to be particularly disrespectful to his female colleagues—he can’t remember one of their names; he undermines Dr. Zoe Brockett (Odette Annable), the female M.D. the show claims he has a crush on, but not Dr. Wallace—though it’s not clear if the show knows he is casually biased or if the show itself is casually biased. James is constantly promising patients positive outcomes his staff say are impossible and then, of course, getting them to deliver.

In the major storyline of the first episode, a woman who is 21 weeks pregnant and has a gigantic tumor on her heart arrives at Bunker Hill. The tumor needs to come out, but the baby is not yet viable outside of the womb. She and her husband are religious and had been told they would not be able to get pregnant, and they chose to come to Bunker Hill because James promised they could save both the baby and the mother’s life, though her doctors do not. The show seems like it is veering toward an abortion-for-the-health-of-the-mother storyline, only to takes a number of twists and poorly paced turns, before, of course, delivering a 22-week-old baby—the show acts like there are no complications with such a premature infant—and fixing the mother’s heart, with the help of a 3-D printer. This isn’t tech and it isn’t science, it’s good ol’ entertainment, a fantasy of a simpler future that doesn’t really place its faith in the possibilities of medicine but in the largesse of billionaires.