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Beloved executive producer Jason Katims returns to broadcast with CBS medical drama Pure Genius, with the procedural marking a noticeable departure from his tears-inducing family dramas like NBC’s Parenthood and Friday Night Lights.
To hear Katims tell it, the twice-developed medical drama will carry the same emotional beats as his other dramas and, like those that came before it, has storylines that hit close to home.
Below, Katims talks with THR about what changed as Pure Genius was redeveloped from last season, revisiting Parenthood and what parts of Friday Night Lights he’d like to explore again.
Pure Genius narrowly missed a pilot pickup last season and was redeveloped this year. How much did the idea for the show change? What was different about it that made this a pilot you wrote vs. Sarah Watson, who penned last year’s script?
One of the things I got very interested in was the world of digital health. We met with some people in the field — especially with Dr. Spiegel at Cedars, who has become one of our consultants on the show — that’s where a lot of the new ideas came from. The idea of the E-Hub, the hospital without walls; the idea of using big data to help with or even solve medical cases. I got excited about the potential for a hospital of the future to be more than just seeing fancy gadgetry, and wanted to incorporate these very of-the-moment developments.
How big of a departure is it for you to focus on weekly procedural elements while still juggling a serialized story?
It’s different. It’s a medical show and you have to feed the beast of your weekly closed-ended stories. What has been unexpected for me is how we’ve really been able to make those self-contained stories emotional. It reminds me of writing one-act plays — you get to dig into these characters at a very scary moment in their lives, but you can still explore the dynamics. We’ve done father-daughter stories, stories about sisters, stories about couples — that’s been very satisfying.
You mentioned at TCA that this show has roots in a deeply personal experience for you. Who is the character that best embodies you and your experience?
When I come on as a writer, the first thing I do is try to find my way in — find something that personally resonates with me about the story. I spent a year where both my father and my wife were ill — and I found myself spending a lot of time in hospitals, a lot of time talking to doctors. As I was writing the pilot, I tried to imagine what might have helped us more through those situations. I wanted Bunker Hill Hospital reflect that. And I think the character that most embodies that experience is Dr. Wallace (Dermot Mulroney). He’s a great doctor who, over the years, has had to accept the parameters of the health care system. It is fun to write and watch his evolution at Bunker Hill, where he is challenged to think about things in a new way.
This is a big departure from a show like NBC’s Parenthood. How do the emotional notes in Pure Genius compare with Parenthood?
Yes, they are different shows, but I find Pure Genius incredibly satisfying to do — we find emotional moments in every episode. If people enjoy watching it half as much as I enjoy making it, we’ll be in good shape.
You’re juggling multiple projects, all very different: Hulu’s The Path, Pure Genius and Showtime’s Mating. What’s the common thread?
The exciting thing is these are all very distinct projects — they vary from network to premium cable, streaming, from comedy to drama. The only reason to do them all is to stretch a different muscle with each one. I think the common thread is that they are all human stories. They all observe something that I connect to and think is relatable — and you just hope other people find that connection as well.
NBC’s This Is Us has already been declared the next Parenthood and many think it’s a Katims show. Have you seen it? What did you think of it? Why do you think family dramas have become so rare on the small screen today?
I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve been complimented on it a bunch of times by people who were certain it was my show. I look forward to seeing it. And I think there are actually a lot of great families on TV right now — the family storytelling in The Americans is outstanding. Transparent as well.
You’ve mentioned a Parenthood revival is not a question of if, but when. Do you have an idea for it? Would it be a limited series/TV movie/big-screen feature?
I’d like to wait long enough so we can look at the family at a truly new stage. We already hinted at that with Mae Whitman’s character having a baby. But it would be cool if that baby got old enough to start telling Amber stories, with Amber as the mom as opposed to being the teenage kid. It’s amazing when you remember how young Amber was in the pilot. I’m also personally curious to see how Max does once he’s no longer a kid. That question resonates with me right now. It’s one thing to talk about people like Max when they’re kids — but what about when they grow up and they are still battling with tough issues? I truly don’t know if it will ever really happen. But it would just be fun. Seeing how Adam and Kristina are doing, Joel and Julia, Crosby and Jasmine, Sarah — you get used to being around them. They become like family. Of course, there are a ton of moving parts. The actors have very busy careers, busy lives — so finding a time when everyone is available and interested — that’ll be the challenge. But I always start with creative — when we feel like we have a great story to tell, we’ll start from there and see how far we get.
What other subjects/genres would you like to explore?
It’s not really about subject or genre, but Friday Night Lights was such a great experience — it was shot completely on location, in Texas, and we never built a single set. We got under the skin of that place in this very special way. I’d like to find a way to do that again — not do a show about Texas, or football — just tell a story where the location has that sort of authenticity, where the people all feel real, and you have the feeling that you were just dropped down in the middle of a sub culture. That would be exciting to me.
What shows are you currently watching?
I just watched Fargo and The Night Of. I’m also a huge fan of The Americans and Veep.
Pure Genius premieres Thursday, Oct. 27 at 10 p.m. on CBS.
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