'Genius: Picasso': TV Review

This one should have gone back to the drawing board.
4/24/2018

National Geographic follows its Albert Einstein installment of 'Genius' with a cliche-ridden look at Pablo Picasso (played by Antonio Banderas), his pronouncements about art and the women who inspired him.

Although far from perfect, the first season of National Geographic's Genius avoided some of the worst cliches of hagiography thanks to Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn's eccentric interpretations of Albert Einstein — and particularly Samantha Colley's fully inhabited performance as Mileva Maric, who was able to come across as exceptional in her own right and not just a flimsy female enabler of male brilliance.

Whatever trepidation and concern that first season sometimes dodged, the upcoming second Genius installment, focusing on Pablo Picasso, falls victim to. The four new episodes sent to critics, and the last four episodes I'll watch of this installment, are almost non-stop hackneyed dialogue about the nature of art, delivered with bizarre accent and performance choices, in a cumbersomely arced dual narrative about the power of one-dimensional women to inspire and enable spectacular men.

Although the core creative team of Genius remains intact from the first season, led by writer and frequent director Ken Biller, the season is probably doomed by what was always a questionable choice for a season-two subject.

This is not about whether or not Picasso was a genius. Of course he was.

And this also isn't my politically correct complaint about how reductive a show's approach to "genius" has to be to lead off with two European males as subjects.

The creative stumbles from Einstein to Picasso aren't about them both being European men, but rather their both being European men born at basically the same time (1879 for Einstein and 1881 for Picasso) and thus experiencing many of the same shifts in culture and social mores and thus facing comparable threats from fascism at the same phases of their personal lives and indulging in many of the same appetites and personal failings. Einstein and Picasso are hardly the same person, but if you let yourself slip into a format or structural rut, they can be begin to feel that way and the second Genius season is immediately in a structural rut. It's just utterly illogical to me that with the history of humanity as a potential canvas, this would be a trap one would fall into.

Even the two show's dueling timeframes are thematically identical.

In one, at the dawn of the 20th century, Young Picasso (Alex Rich) begins studying art and has to listen to teachers saying things like, "You will not be an artist until you have copied the masters, studied anatomy and learned the language of geometry." This is roughly the same way Young Einstein (not the Yahoo Serious version) had to struggle against turn-of-the-century intellectual orthodoxy, recognizing that traditional educational institutions wouldn't be able to support his burgeoning brain and his unique way of seeing the universe. Young Picasso's journey takes him to Paris, where the people he encounters include painter Carlos Casagemas (Robert Sheehan) and writer Guillaume Apollinaire (a nearly unrecognizable Seth Gabel), plus poet Max Jacob (T.R. Knight), whose romantic overtures are rebuffed because Picasso is all kinds of heterosexual.

We get more versions of how insanely straight the artist is in the later time period, beginning in 1937, when Picasso (Antonio Banderas, boasting the mother of all comb-overs) is commissioned to paint a mural based on the tragedy in Guernica and balances "relationships" with baby mama Marie-Therese (Poppy Delevingne), unstable-but-talented Dora Maar (Colley) and Francoise Gilot (Clemence Poesy), who is inexplicably willing to give her virginity to Picasso in exchange for painting patronage in a way the series tries to pretend is romantic. Picasso is being generally threatened by Nazis and Spanish fascists, albeit not in the exact way Einstein found himself in jeopardy. 

In the first four episodes, it's rare that the parallel structures informed or enhanced each other and episode-to-episode urgency is almost nil.

One of the smartest things the Genius: Einstein season did was exclude Rush, an eventual deserved Emmy nomination, entirely from the second episode, allowing that chapter to focus at least half on Colley's Maric. That choice said, "This woman is going to be a character with her own interiority and we don't want you to make the mistake of assuming otherwise." Through four episodes of Genius: Picasso season, no comparable attempt has been made to make any of the women more than muses, and when they cease to serve that purpose, Picasso says things like, "I can't remember the last time either of them made me want to pick up a brush." The closest any of Picasso's women come to being developed is Dora, and that's just because Colley's fierce energy cuts though a lot of tripe, which doesn't mean the show tells us anything about her art or the way she inspires Picasso other than being, presumably, a demon in the sack. But for all of that, he also laments that he's the one being used by his myriad concubines, even whining, "Everyone wants something from the great Picasso. I suppose I wish she wanted me for me." ¡Oh pobre Picassito!

Almost all of the dialogue in Genius: Picasso is comparably exaggerated and cringe-inducing. The great man is ever wailing things like, "I can only paint what I feel!" and "You only teach rules and imitation. I want to do something original! Unique!" and "Artists must be free. No restrictions of any kind!" and "It's a new century! Everything is changing! Art must change, too!" (a comment made in 1905). When he first experiences a Matisse painting he declares, "He has bent all the rules. I want to smash them."

But how does Genius: Picasso explain to the audience what it means, in aesthetic terms, for Picasso to be original and unique, for him to paint what he feels, for him to be doing nothing less than smashing the rules and changing the paradigm of art? It has no clue. Genius: Einstein had much more latitude in this respect, since it was being asked to express the theoretical in visual terms, using creative leaps to bring words and ideas to life. And sometimes it did so well. Genius: Picasso just relies on the same handsomely nostalgic depiction of the past. Only a minute-long snippet in the first episode, interspersing the horrors of the Guernica bombing with the shocking and fragmented vision of the painting, makes even a half-hearted effort to have us see the world the way Picasso does, to understand his process even in the slightest. The rest of the early episodes are showing us flat, finished versions of Picasso's evolving art and letting friends and trusted confidantes tell him how great it is and letting snobby gallery owners or critics say dumb things about how wrong he is, so that we know how right he is. If you're going to spent an entire miniseries hailing the work of an aesthetic visionary, you have to allow some of that to influence the way you're capturing the story. Otherwise, it's a lot of telling, but less showing than you'd even get from a coffee table book.

Banderas brings some acceptably hammy flair to his version of Picasso, but Rich has the meatier portion of Picasso's life. They're both fine. Neither has any way of conveying or selling Picasso's genius, so they both squint and stare a lot.

The installment of Bad Accent Theatre that plays out around Banderas and Poesy's native accents is just unfortunate, and clearly nobody told any of the actors to underplay their Spanish-ness or, particularly, their French-ness. "Just go with a light European accent" was never on the table. With Gabel's Apollinaire, he's at least embodying a figure who was already larger than life. With Colley's Maar, she's at least playing an artist prone to drama and exaggeration. But when Knight comes in and dons the linguistic equivalent of a beret, striped red shirt, a crunchy baguette and an unfiltered Gauloises, it's very hard not to laugh at the delivery of lines that, under the best of circumstances, would be nearly impossible to deliver. There's a moment where Max says his goal is "to retreat from the banal" that produced minutes of uncontrollable giggles clearly not in keeping with the solemnity of the scene.

Genius has already announced that Mary Shelley will be next season's focus, and I have worries. Shelley's a woman who has always been unfairly defined by her proximity to famous men, and as much as I'd hope Genius would be determined to debunk that condescending perception, everything in this Picasso season sounds a note of caution. I'll still tune back in to see how the series responds to being forced into a fresh version of what "genius" means. Genius: Picasso suggests this template is entirely stale.

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Alex Rich, Samantha Colley, Clémence Poésy, Aisling Franciosi, Robert Sheehan, T.R. Knight, Seth Gabel, Johnny Flynn
Creator: Ken Biller
Premieres: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (National Geographic)