By my rough calculation, something like 85 series have either returned or premiered this month.
So if you want to stand out, you’ve got to do something that will capture viewers’ attention immediately. And so it is, dear readers, that our first glimpse of Albert Einstein (Geoffrey Rush) in Genius finds the man in the throes of passion with his assistant. And not in the bedroom, mind you, but in his university office, against a chalkboard, moments before he’s about to teach a class. When his assistant reminds him that he has a wife, Einstein replies, “Monogamy is not natural.” Perhaps a better title might have been Genius Anatomy or Genius of Thrones.
If the series wanted to upend viewers’ expectations of an iconic historical figure, it succeeds. But after that somewhat jarring opening sequence, the ten-episode series settles into a more mundane drama. Genius, based on Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, follows the dual stories of Albert (Johnny Flynn), circa 1894, a young student stymied by an education system that wants him only to memorize and regurgitate and not think, question and theorize, and the elder Professor Einstein, beginning in 1922, living in Berlin, Germany at a time when his ideas are a threat to the rising Adolf Hitler and his followers. (Side note: Although there are only 28 years between these two versions of Einstein, Flynn looks a lot younger than Rush. Makes you think Einstein should have invested in some wrinkle cream. But I digress.)
Interestingly, it’s the younger version of Einstein that is more compelling, as he fights with his father about his education, attends Zurich Polytechnic Institute, romances and breaks the heart of his first love, Marie (Shannon Tarbet), and then meets his first wife, fellow physics student Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley). His academic questioning is often viewed as insubordination. “What is time and for that matter what is space?” he ponders.
Given the current political climate, it’s hard to view anything in a vacuum, without considering what’s happening in the world around us. Professor Einstein’s theory of relativity is dismissed as a “Jewish theory” and denounced by fellow physicists. It’s different so they fear it. This past weekend was the March for Science and we are dealing with an administration that doesn’t believe in climate change. History, as the saying goes, has a way of repeating itself.
The elder Einstein’s story is only featured in the first episode of the two made available for review. It follows many stories about what it was like to live in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power: Einstein, a pacifist who does not wish to be politically involved, doesn’t believe Hitler will prevail and ignores warnings that he’s in danger, even when his second wife, Elsa (Emily Watson), begs him to leave Germany. “If we leave, they win,” he tells her in a burst of dialogue that feels like it could be from any number of movies about World War II.
Einstein finally decides to move to America, accepting a position at Princeton University, after a local store owner in Germany begins selling copies of Mein Kampf and a follower of Hitler spits in his face. But before he can depart, he’s questioned by the U.S. embassy at the directive of J. Edgar Hoover (T.R. Knight). Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), so good at being a delightful snake in the grass, is pitch perfect as Raymond Geist, the U.S. Consul General in Berlin interrogating Einstein.
Flynn brings a youthful exuberance and an infectious energy to his role: He makes science exciting. But Rush’s performance—although difficult to judge on the basis of just one episode—comes across as more of a caricature than a true portrait of the man. Colley is the true standout, as a gifted woman who wants nothing more than to learn during a time when that is not what society wanted women to do. The drama also chooses to provide viewers with Maric’s back story, giving the title, Genius, more than one subject.
The pilot episode is directed by Ron Howard, and although there are some inspired moments—namely when we see how science and theory come alive in Einstein’s mind—the series is not nearly as brilliant or as special as its subject matter. For its first scripted series, National Geographic plays it surprisingly safe.
Genius premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .