If you’ve ever been on a long road trip, there’s a solid chance you’ve seen Albert Einstein, tongue impishly stuck out, staring down at you from a billboard that proudly proclaims, “As a student, he was no Einstein.” It’s advertising meant to encourage, but it’s always felt strange to me. It capitalizes off an honest narrative of Einstein as a rebellious flunker with the image of a foolish moron who somehow eventually got smart. His school failings are true, but these billboards obscure the fact that Einstein was incredibly, fantastically, abominably smart, even while he was failing French exams.
Taking on the gargantuan task of displaying who Einstein really was is National Geographic’s Genius. The show’s challenge is to turn a name that’s become a slang term for intelligence back into a human being.
It opens in 1922 Berlin, with the assassination of Walter Rathenau by the far-right Organisation Consul, and it continues to place the middle-aged Einstein (played with subdued theatricality by Geoffrey Rush) in a political context of danger. Hitler is soon to attempt a coup that sends him to jail to write Mein Kampf, and Einstein’s wife Elsa (Emily Watson) wants to leave Germany because his name is on the Consul’s list of targets for assassination.
In parallel with Einstein dazzling a class with his intellect, his wonderment, and his one-liners, asking whether there’s “an audible tick-tock throughout the galaxy,” the sprawling biography swings back to 1895 where a young Albert (Johnny Flynn) proves impudent and buzzing with potential. Flynn is real joy to watch. He brings the wild-haired mind to life as one part gleeful jester, one part Johnnie Rotten, and one part puppy who doesn’t understand why the lizard it was playing with stopped moving. There’s also a dash of Holmesian violin playing for good measure.
In the parlance of our times, this Einstein fucks. As a young man. As an older man. He’s a passionate, manic pixie dream boy knocking young women off their axes. However, the show also does fair work in proving that these women aren’t simply bodies that fall into Einstein’s orbit. Marie Winteler (Shannon Tarbet) is bright, caring, and attempts to teach him French between love-making sessions in sun-drenched fields. Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley) easily holds her own intellectually against Albert, working alongside him as a mental and emotional partner.
But Albert’s audacious curiosity in the face of university norms is matched by his ignorance of the heart. Instead of a golden-dipped hero, Genius shows his flitting enthusiasm both as an energy source and as an energy vampire. The first time the g-word is uttered is with scorn and sardonic contempt by Einstein’s father, as if being hyper-intelligent can excuse someone from being an unthoughtful ass. It is both praise and pejorative.
The series is infatuated with its antique setting, displaying the props and places of Art Deco Europe with reverence and elation. Unfortunately, the look is almost always two-dimensional or measured by the simplest tricks of composition. It seems plagued by flatness, even though several of the historical recreations look bold and colorful. It is a hundred miles away from stock dramatic re-enactments, yet still a hundred feet away from the gloss we’ve come to expect from prestige television.
That’s essentially its only major flaw. The writing from biopic-veteran Walter Isaacson is equally illustrative and entertaining, utilizing the natural conflicts any of us might find in life — academic struggles, job failure, family dramatics, and romantic uncertainty — to turn Einstein from meme back into human. The magic trick is how Genius offers us his unvarnished sides without diminishing his well-earned stature.
That’s thanks in large part to Flynn’s magnetic appeal and to Rush’s unsurprising command. They’re also surrounded by winning performers like Tarbet and Colley, who get the lion’s share of emotional complexity and handle it with the steady hand of seasoned performers. There’s Michael McElhatton, who ports his Game of Thrones sneer to the world of incipient Nazism as the brilliant, yet virulently anti-Semitic, physics professor Dr. Philipp Lenard, and Alistair Petrie, who offers a ferocious presence as Heinrich Weber, a professor who takes a chance on Einstein and suffers the consequences.
This is all within the first two episodes. Genius promises even more solid talent (playing famous historical faces) on the horizon.
As young Albert fiddles and diddles his way through the newness of academic discovery, older Albert faces the threat of being spat on in the street by brownshirts as Hitler gains power. Rush’s portrayal transitions bleakly from happy, fornicating egghead to endangered species, seeking to couch his confirmed talent in a socio-political realm that can’t help but echo all these years later.
The time-hopping first episode ends on a cliffhanger provided by history and the United States’ willingness in the 1930s to bar its gates to talented foreigners seeking refuge. The Einsteins’ planned escape of Germany by traveling to California is held up by J. Edgar Hoover stooge Raymod Geist (played as sternly hateful by Mad Men‘s Vincent Kartheiser).
Yet the most poignant political element emerges in paralleling the loud, blustery acrimony of Dr. Lenard, as he furiously indoctrinates a young class to hate the outsider and worship German physics, with the quiet, somber condolences offered to Einstein by strangers attending the funeral of the assassinated Walter Rathenau. It’s in this moment we see a clash between the volatile irrationality of fear and the stable rationality of human kindness. Beyond politics, it’s also a fitting symbol for the personal battles Albert faces in this stirring, excellent show.
Genius premieres on the National Geographic Channel, 4/25 at 9pm Eastern.
4 out of 5 Burritos
Images: National Geographic