‘Pure Genius’: Purely Unlikable

Photo: CBS
Photo: CBS

I hadn’t looked at the pilot episode of Pure Genius in a while, so I read over the notes I’d taken when I first viewed it. The most prominent sentence I’d written was scrawled in big letters: “JAMES BELL IS A HORRIBLE SMUG TWIT.” Written in haste, to be sure, but it turns out to be very true of my reaction upon looking at Pure Genius — which premieres on CBS Thursday night — again.

The show is about a Silicon Valley tech gazillionaire, the aforementioned James Bell, played by Augustus Prew, who builds a big advanced-state-of-the-art teaching hospital and research center to help people with illnesses no one else seems able to cure. In the pilot, he hires Dr. Walter Wallace, played by Dermot Mulroney, because Wallace is both a gifted surgeon and a bit of a rebel — he was fired from his last job for administering an experimental drug to a patient, something Bell finds admirable. (The patient died, but in the world of the millennial Bell — whatever, dude: This doc rocks!)

The overriding notion of Pure Genius is that cutting-edge technology can make health care better, and Bell is a secular savior to many patients and their families who could not otherwise afford such luxe treatment. The guy is a very wealthy saint, right?

Not really. The way the role is written, and the way Prew plays him, James Bell is like a lot of those real-life tech geniuses you’ve read about who do good works with charities but whose personal behavior is pretty obnoxious. Bell is aloof, rude, abrupt, and insistent upon ceaseless labor from his employees. He is constantly demanding more innovation and is unbearably serene even as he sows chaos among the people who work for him and who scramble to please this Great Oz of a boss. He can’t be bothered to learn the names of most of his devoted staff (because, you know, he’s super-rich, and they’re just big brains), so he either calls them by the wrong name or gives them unwanted nicknames. In front of worried patients, Bell says to his doctors, “I didn’t build this hospital to deliver bad news,” which is his barely polite way of saying to his underlings, “Solve this problem or you’re outta here.”

I found Bell to be one of the least likable protagonists in a primetime series in a while, which is really saying something in a season that has given us Notorious and Bull. Whenever Bell pressed an index finger to his lips shortly before dispensing some medical wisdom about which he has no medical training to draw upon, I wanted to slap his hand from his mouth and say, “Scram, jerk!”

You can bet that while Dr. Wallace may be thinking the same thing, he’s not going to act upon it. Mulroney, not one of the liveliest of TV leading men, doesn’t just bring gravity to his role; he weighs it down with cement blocks. If he were any more dour, one of Bell’s bright young things might mistake him for an escaped depressive and shove him into a room for a needle shot of some experimental Happy Joy Juice.

I know that somewhere deep inside Pure Genius there must be something worthwhile, because it’s created by Jason Katims, the writer-producer of some of my favorite shows, including Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. I’ll look at a second episode of Pure Genius when it airs next week, to see if I can see what Katims sees in his characters. I’m not hopeful, but I owe the show and Katims that much, at least.

Pure Genius airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.