The time has come once again (again). The summer sun set long ago. The days have grown colder and the nights have grown longer and we’ve filled those nights with
fretting about the election new fall TV. As happens every autumn, the five major networks unleashed a flurry of new programs meant to entertain us into these dark, frigid winter months (and beyond). So many choices. So much risk! How will you know what to watch? That’s where I come in. I watch every new fall pilot episode so that you don’t have to (even if it takes me months to do so). I take one for the team, so you can watch the… screen(m). It’s time for more of…
THE PILOT PROJECT (2016 Edition Pt. 2)
Pure Genius (Thursdays on CBS)
One of my problems with the vast majority of CBS programs is that they’re all overly simplified, seemingly in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It’s not that their programs are that bad, it’s just that they’re bland retreads of ideas that have been done to death. Look at great dramas like Lost or Breaking Bad (yeah, that’s right, I’m putting them on the same level – fight me), or great comedies like Arrested Development or Community. They stretch the bounds of their genre and format. They actively strive to break new ground and to tell stories in creative and interesting ways. CBS programs do the opposite. It’s like they actively strive to be as unoriginal as possible. Which brings me to Pure Genius.
The brilliant author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke had three adages that were known as “Clarke’s three laws”. The third, and most renowned, of these laws is that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Procedural dramas too often take this idea to heart. One of the most common complaints about television procedurals is that the technology used may as well be magical. Watch any episode of CSI, Bones, or Scorpion and you’ll see what I mean. Procedural technology is capable of literally anything. How many episodes of television have you seen where someone tells a guy at a computer to “enhance” an image. Now there are actual ways to enhance an image, but these programs always take it to the most ridiculous extremes. “Do you see that? It’s his reflection. See if you can zoom in on it. Ah, what’s that in his eye? It’s the reflection of his killer. See if you can enhance the reflection of the reflection. We’ve found our man”. There’s actually a name for this phenomenon – the CSI effect. In an academic journal analyzing the effects of this phenomenon on actual juries, authors N.J. Schweitzer and Michael J. Saks state the following:
In recent years, the television program CSI and its spin-offs have portrayed forensic science as high-tech magic, solving crimes quickly and unerringly. Of course, CSI is only fiction. One forensic scientist estimates that 40% of the “science” on CSI does not exist, and most of the rest is performed in ways that crime lab personnel can only dream about.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Television is, after all, an entertainment medium and it’s used by many as a means of escapism. What’s the problem with a little magic technology? There is no problem with magic technology… in science fiction. But that’s not what Pure Genius is. It’s billed as a medical procedural, and in an attempt to distinguish itself, it incorporates “sufficiently advanced technology”. It is the television embodiment of Clarke’s third law.
There’s a scene in the episode in which the team, led by brilliant Silicon Valley billionaire James Bell (Augustus Prew), try to bring a young girl out of a coma. They’ve grown tired of waiting for her to come to them, so they decided to go to her. With the vast resources that he has used to fund the cutting-edge Bunker Hill Hospital, Bell purchases an experimental piece of equipment that allows for brain-to-brain communication – mind-reading. They throw the helmets on the patient and her mother, and sure enough, as the father speaks to his daughter, the mother utters the words “hi daddy” through tears. Now, if this were an episode of Fringe, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. Fringe was a sci-fi procedural that dealt with fringe science. Pure Genius is not. In fact, showrunner Jason Katims actually told his writers’ room that he didn’t want to make a science fiction show. That means that apparently, the writers have done some amount of research into real experimental medical practices that they believe could be utilized some day. If this episode is anything to judge by, however, those practices are still a long ways off. Everything important in this show takes place on a high-tech computer screen or holographic tablet. Every impossible problem is solved through magical technology that’s too advanced to fail. This is House without the ingenuity – or the characters.
Every character in Pure Genius falls flat. There are no distinct personalities. The only character less interesting than Bell himself is Dr. Walter Wallace (Dermot Mulroney), who is at first reluctant to join the hospital before being wowed by the miraculous power of all the expensive tech. There’s a whole team of medical experts that frankly aren’t worth elaborating on here – trust me, this show isn’t doing anything you haven’t seen a hundred times before. If you’re going to have boring characters, then you at least need to have an interesting plot. If you’re going to have a boring plot, then you at least have to have interesting characters. Pure Genius lacks both. ER, House, and Grey’s Anatomy were compelling because you were watching interesting characters push themselves to solve problems and save lives. In Pure Genius, the technology does most of the heavy lifting.
It’s unfortunate, because Jason Katims is the insanely talented individual who brought us Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, two shows which were known for their loveable characters and authentic emotional beats. Those shows elevated the family drama, but there’s nothing that sets Pure Genius apart from other shows of its ilk. Maybe one day Katims will have his show explore the complexities that surround sufficiently advanced technologies, but until then, I can’t recommend Pure Genius.
It kind of sucks to end The Pilot Project on such a low note, but… what can you do? I didn’t ask CBS to premiere half of its new fall schedule later than everyone else. Go forth, skip all CBS shows, and be blessed.