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TV Review: ‘Genius’ on National Geographic

With:
Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Flynn, Emily Watson, Shannon Tarbet, Samantha Colley, Seth Gabel, Michael McElhatton, Vincent Kartheiser, Ania Bukstein, T.R. Knight, Richard Topol, Ralph Brown.

One of Albert Einstein’s many accomplishments was unlocking entirely new ways of thinking: His theories about how time and space operate led to radical shifts in how physicists — and many ordinary people — view the building blocks of the universe.

So it’s odd that “Genius,” a clunky adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s sprightly biography of Einstein, doesn’t more effectively make use of the basic elements of Einstein’s eclectic and well-traveled life. If the goal was to fill out the pop-culture image of Einstein — who’s been depicted in many a dorm-room poster as an impish rebel with his tongue stuck out — this series is only occasionally successful. “Genius” is more often hampered by an approach that is often unsubtle and unworthy of such a precise and rigorous thinker. 

Episodes one and two jump around to a few different periods in the Nobel Prize winner’s life, but in the early going, “Genius” quite doesn’t land on the most interesting time frames, or find consistently thoughtful ways to illuminate the eras it does explore. It will not surprise many viewers that Einstein was aghast at the rise of Fascism in 1930s Berlin; what he did before and after that time to further the cause of intellectual freedom and to present himself as a steely but affable promoter of humanistic values is quite a bit more interesting, not to mention relevant to the current moment.

What sets “Genius” apart are its production values and some lovely compositions from of its directors, notably Ron Howard, who helmed the pilot. The show’s locations, production design and costumes are all top-notch.

Otherwise “Genius” is an uneven stew of superficial elements, not many of which amplify or capably explain why Einstein was not just important to science but to the 20th Century. The drama covers the basics of the man’s life, but it sometimes skitters around in ways that prevent it from developing dramatic momentum, and it’s got more than its share of tin-eared dialogue and overwrought, undercooked melodrama.

Early on, the middle-aged Einstein is scolded by a lover: “For a man who is an expert on the universe, you don’t know the first thing about people, do you?” The exposition-heavy dialogue that follows that outburst is rarely more nimble. Actors like Michael McElhatton from “Game of Thrones” and Vincent Kartheiser from “Mad Men” play small roles in which they don’t make much of an impression, given how little they’re given to work with. In general, the approach of “Genius” involves dutifully employing the conventions of old-fashioned film biographies without adding the nuance or informed context that a 10-hour TV series might allow for. 

The second episode is largely about Einstein’s education as a young man, in Germany and Switzerland, and it also provides some background on his early relationships. The focus on that era in his life isn’t an unreasonable choice, especially given that the young Einstein is played by Johnny Flynn, who has a sweet, lively energy that is hard to resist.

But the way “Genius” skips around in the first episode seems largely about giving Geoffrey Rush some meaty scenes, regardless of any other narrative concerns. As the middle-aged Einstein, Rush sports a prosthetic nose and the expected nimbus of grey hair. He has the kind of presence one would expect from an Oscar winner, but the flat dialogue and thin characterizations don’t rise to the level of talent and versatility that Flynn and Rush display.

As Isaacson’s book did to a laudable degree, “Genius” goes some ways toward shedding light on the influence of Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, whose lonely journey as one of the few women pursuing a scientific degree in the 1890s is brought to empathic life by Samantha Colley. What is charming about “Genius” largely revolves around different kinds of romance, whether visual or interpersonal. The rich, golden light that pervades many classrooms, dinner scenes and outdoor frolics is lovely, and Einstein’s flirtation with a young woman in a Swiss town looks like something out of a storybook.

But the core romance and rejections of Einstein’s life — his love affair with science, and his hatred of nationalism, xenophobia and conventional thinking — are often treated with a glibness that doesn’t sit well with the profundity of Einstein’s insights or the depth of his commitment to his beliefs. In “Genius,” the characters are rarely more than types, and treatments of both science and politics are a little too simplistic to add dramatic heft to the proceedings. 

Perhaps “Genius” will deepen its portrait of the scientist and the often frightening world he lived in as it heads into the heart of its 10-episode run. The world could certainly use an electric, engrossing story about a scientist who spoke truth to power and used every tool at his disposal to fight repression, anti-Semitism and the closing of minds.

TV Review: 'Genius' on National Geographic

Drama; 10 episodes (2 reviewed); National Geographic, Tues., April 25. 60 min.

Crew: Executive producers, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Francie Calfo, Ken Biller, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane, Sam Sokolow, Jeff Cooney.

Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Flynn, Emily Watson, Shannon Tarbet, Samantha Colley, Seth Gabel, Michael McElhatton, Vincent Kartheiser, Ania Bukstein, T.R. Knight, Richard Topol, Ralph Brown.

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