With narrative storytelling on television taking new leaps and bounds every second, new original content has started to come thick and fast from unexpected places. National Geographic, best known for its iconic magazine and documentary series, stepped into the ring with ‘Genius’, an anthology series where each season will take on a famous figure of history considered to be a genius in their field. With the help of the Oscar-winning team of Ron Howard and Brian Glazer, their first season looks at perhaps the most famous scientist of the Twentieth Century, Albert Einstein.
Based on the book by Walter Isaacson, the first season balances the story of Einstein’s (Johnny Flynn and Geoffrey Rush) scientific achievements with his tumultuous personal life, particularly with his first wife Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley and Sally Dexter) and second wife Elsa (Gwendolyn Ellis and Emily Watson). This balance also represents the great push-and-pull of his life, his inquisitiveness and selfishness at odds with his familial duties and the needs of his wife, all set against Germany as it moves through the First World War and into the emergence of Nazism.
The scope of this season is enormous - scientifically, politically and personally - but the ten episode structure actually drags out what could have been a real banger of a series if it were shorter. The quality of the cast and the production design are all excellent, but while the scripts capture some genuinely moving and harrowing moments, they also fall into horrible cliché and sequences whose function is nothing more than an information dump. This isn’t a particularly flashy series - certainly by comparison to other prestige dramas - but there is something engrossing about it. Einstein is a fascinating character for his immense hubris, with a self-centredness that walks hand-in-hand with his imagination and intelligence. The series never seems to take advantage of this fascinating conflict, but it is so woven into his story that it naturally emerges. Flynn and Rush collectively do a terrific job at bringing the man to life, Flynn in particular carrying most of the series and navigating through his more contentious moments.
The great surprise though, and the real heart of the series, is the story of Mileva Maric. Herself an incredible mind that could have been a great scientist in her own right, the shared love of physics that brings Einstein and Mileva together is ultimately what destroys their relationship. We watch as the drive and passion in Mileva is slowly beaten to nothing by the enormity of Einstein’s ambition, causing the breakdown of not just their family but of her very will. In many ways, one of the major faults of this first season of ‘Genius’ is that, while it allows us to see Einstein’s crueller side, it never finds a way to balance this with the great tragedy of Mileva’s story. This is bolstered by Samantha Colley’s performance as Mileva, easily the standout of the series and the biggest reason to watch. Her extraordinary work is beautiful, open, deeply moving and devastating, so much so that you become far more engrossed in her story than her husband’s. Her and Flynn have tremendous chemistry, and even when the marriage is falling apart, the screen sparks with electricity when they’re together. It’s a great pity that Colley hasn’t been recognised for this performance, so enormous is its impact on the success of the series.
If it had been a lean, mean six episodes, this first season of ‘Genius’ could have been a real ripper. All the ingredients are there: a top-notch cast and a genuinely fascinating story about a complex figure, offering a chance to break down how complex the concept of "genius" actually is. Instead, at ten episodes, the story drags its heels and never finds its drive, and prefers to present the idea of genius rather than explore it. The concept of the series as a whole is an effective one, and the second season (bringing back a lot of the same cast) will look at Pablo Picasso. Hopefully they will learn from the mistakes of this first season and make that something really special. As it stands, this thorough portrait of Albert Einstein is entertaining and fascinating, even if it never transcends into truly great television.
Einstein is a fascinating character for his immense hubris, a self-centredness that walks hand-in-hand with his imagination and intelligence.
PICTURE & SOUND
This first season has only been released on DVD, but the technical values of the series aren’t noteworthy enough to lose anything in standard definition. The ten episodes are spread across four discs, and the 2.00:1 anamorphic transfer is bright and clear, and does as good a job as one could hope for a DVD presentation. The same can be said for the surprisingly lively Dolby Digital 5.1 track, with the sound design one of the few noteworthy technical aspects of the series.
All the extras can be found on the fourth disc, the selection made up entirely of promotional clips made by National Geographic in the lead-up to the premiere. Surprisingly though, there’s a lot of information about the creation of the series, and very little of it repetitive. All the major players speak about their experiences and their work on the series, the most fascinating being around how blonde-haired and blue-eyed Johnny Flynn was transformed into black-haired and browned-eyed Einstein. The featurettes included are...
‘Meet Albert Einstein’ (2:52)
‘Meet Elsa Einstein’ (2:35)
‘Meet Mileva Maric’ (2:20)
‘Einstein’s Love Life’ (2:28)
‘Einstein’s Escape from Hitler’ (2:28)
‘The Making of “Genius”’ (7:53)
‘Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’ (1:39)
‘Geoffrey Rush’ (2:54)
‘Johnny Flynn’ (2:34)
‘Emily Watson’ (1:53)
‘Samantha Colley’ (1:56)
‘Costumes and Makeup’ (2:53)
‘What Does “Genius” Mean?’ (2:49)
‘Two Einsteins’ (2:59)
Unfortunately, there is no Play All function, which would have made the viewing experience a lot more satisfying.