Like time or space, criticism can also be relative.
For example: If you were to have told Albert Einstein that something he did was “above average” chances are good that he would whack you upside the head with a violin. If, however, you were to tell National Geographic that a scripted program the network produced was “above average,” well, maybe accustomed to reviews for TV movies based on Bill O’Reilly books about killing historical figures, NatGeo would know how to take a compliment.
Genius, National Geographic’s adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s book Einstein: His Life and Universe, is an above average event series about an extraordinary man. In form and execution, it may be an unremarkable depiction of being remarkable, but it’s also handsomely produced, reasonably intelligent and well-served by paired leading men Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn.
“Time is not absolute,” Einstein says in a 1922 classroom lecture in Berlin. “The distinction between the past, present and future is but a stubborn illusion.”
Series developers Noah Pink and Ken Biller have taken that lesson to heart and split Einstein’s life into a pair of intersecting timelines.
In the 1922-and-beyond timeline, Einstein is played by Oscar winner Rush as an already famous and revered physicist working and teaching in Germany on the eve of Nazism. Playful and randy, this Einstein is carrying on an affair with his assistant Betty (Charity Wakefield) and largely ignoring his wife Elsa’s (properly earthy Emily Watson) warnings about the anti-Semitic undercurrent sweeping the nation. Like so many shows premiering this spring, this aspect of Genius has taken on different shadings in an era of hate-spewing Twitter frogs and condemnation of academia from the fringes.
Starting in Munich in 1894, we meet Young Einstein, who is not in fact the son of a Tasmanian apple farmer attempting to split the beer atom, but is rather a sporadically talented student played by Flynn (Lovesick). Young Einstein is a man of huge cosmic questions and limited interest in the humanities, which could stifle his ability to get a degree of any sort. His roundabout intellectual journey leads him to Switzerland, where he flirts with schoolteacher Marie (Shannon Tarbet) and then to Zurich Polytechnic, where he’s entranced with the brilliant Mileva Mari? (Samantha Colley).
[To quickly break down the semantics of Genius: National Geographic is calling it both the network’s “first scripted series” and an “event series” and it has already been renewed for a second season, though that season will focus on a different genius. Because of the lack of ongoing continuity, for Emmy purposes, Genius will be submitted as a limited/miniseries, with Rush as lead actor and Flynn as supporting actor.]
As you may get from the description, Pink and Biller intend to introduce audiences to a hot-blooded version of Einstein, rather than the loveably frizzy-haired eccentric in our one-dimensional perception.
This leads to awkward dialogue like Betty’s condemnation, “For a man who is an expert on the universe, you don’t know the first thing about people, do you?” But Genius has made peace with the knowledge that when you deal with certain historical characters, injecting their names into lines of dialogue can become almost invariably clunky, with lines like, “Albert Einstein, your reputation precedes you. Disobedient son, perennial truant, unrepentant flouter of authority!” or when an Einstein colleague poo-poos the impending Reich with, “Adolph Hitler is a loud-mouth art school reject with a handful of supporters in a country of 60 million. He’ll be gone in a year.” The first two installments of Genius sent to critics contain three or four groaners like these per hour. Honestly, it could be much worse. Giving Einstein a libido gives Flynn room to emphasize his scatterbrained inexperience and lets Rush accentuate a rascally romantic sincerity.
As with Einstein’s explanation of time, the Genius scripts try to keep the brainy side of things to observations that can double as structural or thematic symbolism, like when one of the first things Mari? announces is, “Human perception is frightfully narrow. We believe we see the whole when in fact we’ve only seen a fraction.” This is a statement that’s true and provocative and meant to be included in reviews of Genius more than it’s believable as a casual bon mot.
The series’ directors then have to further visualize these ephemeral principles. Fortunately, Genius has a premiere directed by Ron Howard, who won an Oscar for doing somewhat similar work on A Beautiful Mind. There’s a lot to be said for knowing when to trust audiences will be captivated by an actor’s pronouncement of ideas and when you need a cut-away to imagined light rays leaving the sun or floating numbers spelling out concepts. Here, Howard’s restraint is admirable. He is less restrained playing with shafts of light refracting through windows and pouring through doorways as characters are talking about the nature of light, but that’s more an aesthetic choice than an abuse of effects. [Somebody needed to suggest more restraint when it came to the opening credit sequence which, accompanied by a bombastic Hans Zimmer score, made me laugh out loud both times I watched it.]
Unlike so many big-name feature directors making small-screen cameos, Howard also doesn’t set an unfollowable precedent with the sturdy premiere, keeping the Minkie Spiro-helmed second hour from feeling like a disappointment.
The most interesting part of that second hour is the total absence of Rush’s version of Einstein. In an admirable writing choice, the bending of time in that hour relates to the troubled Mari?, who gets flashbacks illustrating her own struggles breaking into male-dominated academia. Colley, who I was lucky enough to see doing tremendous work in The Crucible in London, gives the primary Mari? an intensity that’s scary and alluring. Fleshing out that character and keeping the women in Einstein’s life as worthy contributors is one of the best things about Genius, and I’d hate to see it go undiscussed.
Most reviews will focus on the interplay between Flynn and Rush’s Einstein interpretations and how well the two actors create a whole Einstein. They’re both really canny performances. Rush points more to a comedic take on Einstein, which tempers the darkness of the swastikas and copies of Mein Kampf that are beginning to fill the frame. Flynn finds more of Einstein’s inquisitiveness and parlays the omnivorous curiosity into the character’s love triangle as well as his studies. The actors share some mannerism and, in a piece filled with all manner of inconsistent accent work, they sound similar enough. It’s smart casting and good acting alike.
The challenge facing Genius in both this first season and subsequent seasons is the formal entrenchment of the biopics and the fatigue that has long since set in from even acclaimed entries like The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything. Genius doesn’t stray far from the conventional, but the Mari?-centric second episode hints at what longform storytelling can do for the genre. That, plus the leads, is more than enough to earn Genius not a full-on rave, but a relatively strong review.
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Flynn, Emily Watson, Samantha Colley, Michael McElhatton, Seth Gabel, Vincent Kartheiser
Creator: Noah Pink and Ken Biller from the book by Walter Isaacson
Showrunner: Ken Biller
Premieres: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (National Geographic)