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That’s how much Einstein has been replaced by Prof Hawking as the touchstone of genius in the modern day psyche.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.