Pure Genius debuts tonight, marking the return of Jason Katims as showrunner on a network TV series (since Parenthood concluded, he was EP on Hulu’s The Path). Now Pure Genius is a show that could easily be dismissed as a procedural at first glance, but is really more layered and nuanced. The titular “genius” — James Bell — is played by Augustus Prew, and I chatted with him about the series and his character during his recent visit to Toronto. Here’s what he shared with me.
I was pleasantly surprised by the pilot, as I expected it to be more of a procedural and not have ongoing threads introduced immediately. Does that dynamic continue beyond the first episode?
It’s a really good balance of both. Jason [Katims] wanted to do something a little different. It’s the first procedural structure he’s ever done where the story kind of wraps up at the end [of an episode]. Jason writes human stories so well, and there is very much an overarching theme as you get to know these characters. The stories get very, very intertwined and the “case of the week” starts getting wrapped up with the actual characters’ lives. Plus you have the overarching theme of James’ own mortality which is very much felt throughout. That’s a big part of the show, and the case of the week suddenly becomes about that central storyline. Watching Pure Genius is like being a member of the hospital. You get very caught up in each other’s lives, and these people live together 24/7. It starts out with a case of the week but by the fourth episode, we start going home with the characters — we shot in an $18.4 million house the other day which is where James lives — and you start understanding the true motivations behind these characters.
Jason Katims has a reputation for creating tear-jerkers. There were definitely moments in the premiere that could have started the waterworks. Should we be prepared?
Oh, you’re going to cry every episode. We just finished the Christmas episode and I cried three times just reading the script. Jason has a knack for writing these characters that you see yourself in, that you see members of your family in, and empathize with so deeply. That’s why I think this show is special and stands out. That balance between the drama and the case of the week is evenly matched.
An interesting detail is revealed about James by the end of the first episode, and it’s going to raise the question as to whether in creating this state-of-the-art medical facility, Bunker Hill, is he being altruistic or self-serving? Does the series really delve into that?
That is the central conceit of the entire show. Just because you can do something, should you? This is not a hospital that is struggling for resources like on other medical shows. This is a hospital that has every single thing you could possibly want — and more. It is the most up-to-date, advanced, and kind of one step in the future. The issue is you’re straying into territory that’s never been done before, and there are consequences to those things, especially with medicine. It’s humans, it’s not just test subjects. These people are real, and these are people’s lives that you’re messing with, or helping, or maybe not helping as the case may be sometimes. That becomes the central conflict there, the medical ethics of it all. Is it ethical to start a hospital to save your own life? I think that’s part of the journey for James. When the stakes are that high, do you become more selfish? He’s a person who’s grown up on his own. He doesn’t really have a family. Everything he’s done, he’s done himself. When it comes to saving your own life, you can’t do that [by yourself]. Ultimately, you have to start leaning on people, and that — for James — is a struggle. A lot of it is about him learning to connect through these wonderful characters that we meet and get to know very deeply.
In the portrayal of a “genius” on TV or in film, there’s often a trope used where that person is socially awkward. I didn’t find that with James. He was a very humanized genius, and that was refreshing.
He does suffer from “genius syndrome” but he hides it very well. I think James’ whole thing is to be understood. I think we all struggle to be understood a lot of the time. That’s part of the human condition, wanting to be part of the group and also an individual, be understood but also have your privacy. We are constant contradictions and James is no exception to that. James is trying to have a family. He’s a deeply lonely person and his money doesn’t help him with that. His money isolates him, and his brain is moving at a million miles an hour, faster than everyone else’s, so sometimes the basics of everyday life are a struggle for him. He tries to surround himself with people who help him connect with life. He is very aware of how he brands himself and mythologizes himself. He’s borrowed a bit from Steve Jobs in that way. He is very aware of his own narrative.
Is there a specific character that he bonds with early on in the series?
The central relationship that we really come to love is initially between Wallace — Dermot Mulroney’s character — and James. They are polar opposites, but they are symbiotic. They need each other. There is no one without the other. They are two halves of the same coin, so to speak. James is looking for family. He wants to be understood, and Wallace in many ways fills that role. He becomes part of the Bunker Hill family in a very paternal sense.
James feels comfortable enough with Wallace in the pilot to confide in him rather quickly. What is it about Wallace that makes James feel he can tell him his biggest secret?
It’s the fact that Wallace is not a conventional doctor. He doesn’t abide by the rules, but is also someone James feels is grounded. He is the most respected surgeon in the world, and James wants to find the best of the best. I think on a simple level they also connect in a [father/son] way.
What can you share about how James relates to the other characters, besides Wallace?
As the season goes on, there’s a love triangle that develops. It’s touched on in the first episode, and it’s a rocky road for poor James. He’s not so good in the love department.
Photo Courtesy of CBS.