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April 27, 2017

Review: Genius 1x1 (US: National Geographic; UK: National Geographic)

Posted on April 27, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

National Geographic's Einstein

In the UK: Sundays, 9pm, National Geographic (UK)
In the US:
Tuesdays, 9/8c, National Geographic

Everyone's forgotten about Albert Einstein. Not completely, since most people can still at least recall who wrote E=mc2 and there are those T-shirts, of course. But the time has long since passed when if you played word association with someone, 'Einstein' was the automatic response to 'genius'. Even in The Avengers, when Phil Coulson is trying to describe the genius of Bruce Banner to Steve Rogers, a man frozen in ice since the 1940s when Einstein was actually world-famous as history's greatest genius, we get this:

Coulson: Not so much. When he's not that thing though, guy's like a Stephen Hawking.
[Steve looks puzzled, not understanding the reference]
Coulson: He's like a smart person.

That's how much Einstein has been replaced by Prof Hawking as the touchstone of genius in the modern day psyche. Or at least Joss Whedon's.

So it's very welcome that National Geographic has chosen Einstein as the first subject of its first ever scripted series, Genius - an anthology biopic show covering the life of a famous scientific mind each season.

The action is split between two periods and indeed two actors. In the first, we have Geoffrey Rush (Shine, The King's Speech) playing Einstein during the 1930s, when he's already a Nobel-prize winner and the discoverer of special and general relativity. Hitler hasn't come to power yet, even if Nazis are marching in the street and assassinating famous Jews, so Einstein is initially content to continue living in Berlin with second wife/first cousin Elsa (Emily Watson), teaching physics at university. However, by the end of the episode, he and Elsa are heading off for the US.

In the second, we flash back to the late 19th century when a young Einstein (Scrotal Recall's Johnny Flynn) is still at school in Munich and bored out of his mind. He rejects the school's regimented Bavarian teaching practice and would rather be at university. However, other than physics and mathematics, at which he is (almost) unrivalled, he knows little about much else, so is forced to wait a year, during which he receives tutelage from the nearby Tarbet family in the arts - and begins to have some insights into the nature of light, time, space… and girls.

Exec produced by Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind) and Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and developed by Noah Pink and Kenneth Piller (Perception, Star Trek: Voyager, Legend of the Seeker), Genius is unsurprisingly nicely and competently made, filled with a cast of the great and the good, but not anything close to being genius itself.

For starters, we have a veritable flotilla of very bad German accents everywhere, whether someone's speaking English or supposedly speaking German but actually speaking English. This is probably due to there being a mere two German actors in the cast (the supporting cast at that), despite the show very obviously despite the CGI being filmed in Prague. Whether it's Rush, Flynn, Watson, Robert Lindsay (GBH) as Einstein's dad, Nicholas Rowe (Young Sherlock Holmes) as Herr Tarbet, Michael McElhatton (Game of Thrones) as anti-semitic physicist Philipp Lenard or anyone else, it's a mad ensemble of top anglophone actors who get to walk on and do an otherwise jolly period piece turn that nevertheless conjures up memories of 'Allo, 'Allo with every line they utter.

It doesn't help that when you see Germans writing in German, they seem to have an allergy to using umlauts (Franzosisch and Ather? Oh dear). It's off-putting, to say the least, although fine for a glossy Hallmark Channel-esque production that people can have playing in the background, I guess.

Then there's the story-telling itself, based on Walter Isaacson's Einstein, His Life and Universe. It's called Genius but it's more interested in Einstein's dedication to shagging, with the first episode more or less opening on Rush with his trousers round his ankles, shagging badly accented secretary Charity Wakefield (The Player). 

Fair dos - Einstein himself said his life was more exciting than any novel and it is a biopic, rather than a science textbook. But Einstein does come across like a bit of a sex addict most of the time and manages to score big time, despite not really apparently having much by way of game thanks to some exceedingly prosaic yet high-minded dialogue that rarely touches on everyday human concerns.

It's not like the show does a desperately good job of explaining the science, either. If you know one end of your pseudo-Riemannian 4-tensor from another, you can see where Einstein is about to explain Michelson-Morley, despite already having written general relativity's field equations on a blackboard. But the show never let's him explain it anyway. First wife Mileva Marić may show she's not to be trifled with scientifically by stating the Maxwell-Faraday equation to a humbled young Einstein, but it's not like the show does more than just say 'that's the Maxwell-Faraday equation of electromagnetism'.

Instead, the show is determined that despite being on National Geographic, a lay audience it will have and a lay audience's knowledge it will assume. And that means tiresome, sub-Brian Cox demos of the basics, including long bike rides that culminate in "if we were both travelling at the speed of light, I would have appeared to you to have frozen in time". It's a big mess of basic Einsteinian Gedankenexperimente, occasionally peppered with yet more uninspiring CGI, that have the appearance of explaining things but are more for effect than because they either show the science at a deep level or lead to better discussions. Maybe in later episodes. But not now.

Yet there's nothing really that's terrible about Genius. Flynn and Rush are both appealing enough versions of Einstein, and the show actually has a nicely nuanced view of Germany before 1933. On top of that, where else are you going to see someone playing the star of GCSE Chemistry himself, Fritz Haber?

For a science channel, Genius is a disappointing first entry into scripted TV. Nothing awful and it does at least remind people that Einstein was around a smart person, but don't have high expectations of learning what he did that was so great. Except maybe explaining the photo-electric effect. That should be easy.

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Review: Great News 1x1-1x2 (US: NBC)

Posted on April 27, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Great News

In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, NBC

Do you miss 30 Rock? Do you miss a Tina Fey-produced, screwball NBC comedy set behind the scenes of the world of television, perhaps even one written by Tracey Wigfield, who won an Emmy for her writing on 30 Rock

Really? Uh huh. Okay, that's interesting. No reason in particular I'm asking, really. Just a bit of a random questioning straight out of the blue, there. Bit odd of me, huh?

Meanwhile, on a completely unrelated topic, blasting onto our screens we have Great News which is a bit like that lovely movie The Intern, in that it sees a golden oldie mummy (My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Andrea Martin) deciding after the death of one of her friends to follow her dream by starting a new career. Coincidentally, that career is in TV journalism, just like her daughter's (Ground Floor/Undateable's Briga Heelan). Even more coincidentally, she ends up as an intern in Heelan's workplace, a New Jersey TV news show, where the already blurred boundaries between the mother and daughter's lives become even more blurred.

Ha, ha. Fooled you. All those questions at the beginning weren't random at all. I was talking about Great News there, too! Wasn't I cunning?

Indeed, Great News feels like one of those "format sells" to Germany, where a show gets remade more or less identically, except with a slightly different setting and a completely new cast. Some of the characters get changed a bit, some of the dialogue gets moved from one character to another, but otherwise everything stays the same. And in English, this time.

Nevertheless, despite the huge amount of overlap between the shows in terms of writing and cast, Great News not only still feels fresh, it also remains funny, with joke following joke like machine gun fire. Not every joke hits, but they frequently do and are invariably very funny. 

The format also mixes up the targets of the jokes. Whereas 30 Rock was all Liz Lemon's efforts to keep an insane black man and a narcissistic woman happy, giving us both racial and gender comedy, here the jokes are largely generational as well as familial. We have Heelan and Martin's mother-daughter relationship, lending itself to a lot of comedy about female neuroses; Martin's age also lends itself to jokes about oldies' abilities, both positive and negative.

On top of that, the stars of the show-within-the-show are a narcissistic aging white male newscaster (John Michael Higgins) and a terminally hip and stupid younger white female newscaster (the surprisingly good Nicole Richie). It's largely Martin's job to deal with Higgins, Heelan having to deal with Richie's idiocy ("How about we do our piece about Snapchap… on Snapchap?") while trying to advance the cause of serious journalism and her own career.  

The Alec Baldwin of the piece is boss Adam Campbell (Harper's Island), who's both a potential love interest and a frequent foil for Heelan. And as he's English, there are naturally jokes about that, too ("You Benedict Arnold!" "Benedict Arnold was the only one who wasn't a traitor in that war!").

I found the first two episodes to be both frequently laugh-out loud funny and actually funnier than the first episodes of 30 Rock itself, lacking the dramatic lulls that show did while it found its feet. Martin's obviously a hugely powerful and funny force, but Heelan's one of the few younger actresses who could hold her own against Martin and up for physical comedy as well - it's good to see her finally be the star of a show at last. The show isn't especially subtle, and no one's holding back with the acting, but it's frequently subtle in its unsubtlety ("Coming next - the hidden danger in your household's gun collection"), and the humour and performances often have odd beats that feel improvised, giving them more interest than normal.

My humour's a bit odd, but I think if you liked 30 Rock as much as I did, then I think you'll like Great News, too.

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April 26, 2017

Season review: Seven Types of Ambiguity (Australia: ABC)

Posted on April 26, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Seven Types of Ambiguity

In Australia: Thursdays, 8.30pm, ABC. Full series available on iView

What is truth? What is true for one person may be a lie to another; what one person thinks happened one way may have happened completely differently in another person's eyes.

What's also true is that this isn't a new idea, with Husserl and other phenomenologists questioning the idea of a universal truth as early as the start of the 20th century. Movies, too, have been great exponents of the concept of subjective truth, most notably with Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon.

Seven Types of Ambiguity is a really interesting exploration of similar territory to Rashomon, but set in modern day Australia. Based on the Elliot Perlman novel of the same name, it sees a young boy abducted from school, only for him to be found relatively quickly by the police. Oddly, he's unharmed and turns out to have been taken by the ex-boyfriend (Xavier Samuel) of the boy's mother (Janet King's Leeanna Walsman); in turn, his potential accomplice turns out to have a connection to the boy's father (The Slap/Secret City's Alex Dimitriades). Why did Samuel abduct the child? Was Walsman secretly having an affair with Samuel? Was Samuel stalking her for revenge? Or was there some other motivation altogether?

Over the course of the season of six episodes, the series follows the action from the points of view of various characters, each episode focusing on a different one. It starts with Dimitriades, then follows Samuel's psychiatrist (The Matrix/Lord of the Rings/V for Vendetta's Hugo Weaving), Samuel's neighbour (Crownies/Janet King's Andrea Demetriades), Dimitriades's best friend (The Slap/Secrets and Lies's Anthony Hayes), Samuel's lawyer (East West 101's Susie Porter) and ultimately Walsman, where all is finally revealed. But each episode is still really about one or more specific relationships and their ambiguities.

Tonally, each of these is different, with the first episode setting up the action and introducing us to the characters, the second giving us a portrait of a failed marriage, the third a look at Turkish-Australian cultural issues, the fourth almost an Ocean's 11-style comedy, the fifth a study in the pressures of being a working single mother, and the last a portrait in loneliness. While events in one episode lead into and sometimes overlap with events in others, Seven Types of Ambiguity makes it clear that what we see is only what each character sees: Walsman is cold and shut down from her husband's point of view in the first episode, substantially different in the final episode, while Dimitriades' perception of himself as easy going is undermined in the second episode as his simple exchange in the first episode with Weaving changes in the second episode to show he's far less generous, easy going and interested in other people than he thinks. 

The shifting nature of truth mean that although there are hints (and red herrings) in each episode as to what happened, as well as to whether Walsman was indeed having an affair with Samuel, it's not until the end that you're ever ultimately in a place to find out a version of the truth that fits the facts. And actually, while it's unexpected and initially implausible, that truth does eventually get earned; it also largely only feels implausible because it's nice. Indeed, while the conclusion is open-ended, oddly it's hopeful for all the characters, whose lives have all been changed largely for the better by the incident.

Despite Weaving being the biggest name in the cast, this is very much an ensemble piece, with Weaving only cameoing in episode one, merely guesting in the episodes other than his own. Each lead gets to shine at some point, too, although Weaving is the one who's really allowed to go to town, delivering some standout moments in his piece.

On the down side, there are a couple of European characters among the supporting characters (a German wife and an East European babysitter) who are pretty much close to hate speech in their depiction. The middle episodes also feel a little superfluous to requirements, their presence dictated purely by the format. However, they're still enjoyable in their own rights and do at least have something to say, as well as ramifications. 

I really enjoyed it. I hope you will, too. No word yet on a UK acquisition, although if Cleverman, Barracuda and The Code can make it over here, this should be a shoo-in.

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