As National Geographic’s first scripted series, Genius marks a major step forward for the edutainment channel. While the network has dipped its toe in the lake of scripted television before – mostly with the likes of Killing Lincoln and Killing Jesus – Nat Geo has never attempted an ongoing series (anthology or otherwise), let alone one that was about a historical figure’s life and times, and not just the circumstances surrounding his end.
The series takes a smart approach to its promotion, targeting a certain demographic more likely to make National Geographic a semi-regular destination during their nightly channel surfing excursions. That means touting the name of Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard, who directs the series premiere about Albert Einstein, tacitly inviting fans of Tom Hanks-starring Dan Brown adaptations and mostly serviceable movies depicting fictionalized events and/or real people, like Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and, more recently, something about Thor fighting a whale. In other words, Nat Geo knows who butters its basic-cable bread, and has crafted a mostly serviceable edutainment series explicitly for that kind of audience.
Surprisingly, though, despite some paint-by-numbers production values and its flashback within a historical narrative structure, Genius finds a way to be more than serviceable at times, thanks in large part to the performance of Geoffrey Rush, who, with a thick mustache and untamed head of almost-white hair, bears a striking resemblance to the famed physicist. Backing up Rush is an impressive supporting cast that includes Emily Watson as Einstein’s wife Elsa, Charity Wakefield (Wolf Hall), Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), Seth Gable (Fringe), and Samantha Colley. And while those faces help legitimize the series to a certain extent, in that Genius is able to find faces beyond Rush’s that will be familiar to audiences, it’s the addition to Johnny Flynn that proves as important as Rush to the series’ moderate success.
Viewers will likely know Flynn as the star of Netflix’s Lovesick, a charming romantic comedy from the UK that recently (and wisely) shed the incredibly unfortunate title of Scrotal Recall. The young actor has a disarming presence about him, and, like Rush seems capable of imbuing a larger-than-life presence like Einstein with a requisite sort of human emotion to make him engaging as a dramatic figure as well as one of great historical importance. And through the first hour, that is where Genius attempts to distinguish itself.
Developed for television by Noah Pink and Ken Biller, working largely from Walter Isaccson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe, this first installment of Genius does not lack for ambition, but it is held back a bit by the limitations of being on a channel still learning the scripted television ropes and wanting the series to be more than just a dramatic retelling of Einstein’s life. In that sense, National Geographic, Pink, and Biller find themselves attempting to straddle a number of storytelling styles, from traditional biopic to period drama to full on educational television. The result, then, is a mishmash of designs and intents that never stay in one place long enough for the series to establish itself as one thing or another. Perhaps that is a good thing, as the longer the premiere episode lingers on one aspect of Einstein’s life, the more it begins to feel as though it’s uncertain how to approach the depiction of his extraordinary intellect.
Genius begins with the rise of fascism in Germany, planting the series’ main timeline firmly within a context that generates a familiar sort of tension, while establishing a parallel to certain present-day political environments. The seemingly dark tone of the piece is undercut, however, by the actual introduction of Einstein. The first time he appears on screen Albert is having sex with his assistant Betty, played by the aforementioned Charity Wakefield. The juxtaposition of Einstein’s devil-may-care attitude with a scene depicting the assassination of one of his friends by German nationalists underscores the portent of Nazi movement and the growing wave of anti-Semitism sweeping the country. The moment is intended to humanize Einstein, to get the audience to understand that despite all that has been written about him and his, for lack of a better word, genius, he is fueled by many of the same desires and emotions as anyone else. It is also evidence of how surprisingly remedial this biographical series can sometimes be when it slaps the viewer in the face by asking Wakefield to deliver dialogue like, “For a man that is an expert on the universe, you don’t know the first thing about people, do you?”
It’s one thing to present the audience with a side of an historical figure they might not be aware of – and one that may not line up with a well-curated perception of them – but it’s another thing altogether to insist on holding the viewers’ hand throughout each and every step. The series could take a step back with regard to spouting familiar theories and concepts, and instead focus on just how those notions came to be. Albert is all about ideas. But we never see how those ideas form. Instead, Genius is content to let the characters explain their very grand theories to the audience as though plucking them out of thin air. Early on, the premiere is the television equivalent of the student who answered an equation, but refused to show their work.
Thankfully, Genius has nine more episodes to show that work, and as made evident by the series’ second hour, there’s more to the show than cursory explanations of Einstein’s contributions to science and our understanding of the universe. While the premiere attempts, in fits and starts, to explore the reality of the man who has become larger than life, the progression of the story sees that humanity revealed to greater effect. As it turns out, National Geographic is no prodigy when it comes to the rigors of developing scripted television, but it shows promise.
Genius continues next Tuesday with ‘Chapter Two’ @9pm on National Geographic.