Genius Doesn’t Deserve Your Company

National Geographic, the once non-profit magazine under new ownership has decided to piss away what little money it had left by making a miniseries about the life of titular genius Albert Einstein.

How is it?

Well, make a list of everything you don’t want to see in a Einstein biography:jarring sex scenes of the middleaged physicist;expository dialogue; a complete lack of subtlety, anachronistic references; bad special-effects attempting to make science “come to life”;  the substitution of credible dialogue with references to physics; gratuitous violence that adds nothing to the narrative; and virtually no insight into the way genius works.

Genius checks all these boxes by the end of the first episode, augering poorly for the show which has already been renewed for a second season.  The fundamental mistake they make is trying to make a biopic about Einstein exciting rather than interesting. Einstein is exactly the wrong person we want to see endangered by plot contrivance. He is the last person we want to see make last-minute escapes or have backroom liaisons as these things had absolutely nothing to do with the man’s accomplishments or unique genius.

We can expect instead to see Einstein, our new action star, sword fighting with an SS officer over freshly written atomic plans. “I must get aboard that Zepplin and get these plans to President Roosevelt,” says Einstein.  “Before it’s too late!”

But seriously we are treated to many groaners that prey on the audience’s foreknowledge of the Second World War. Some variation of “Hitler isn’t very popular, what’ the worst that can happen” is said at least ten times in the first two episodes. Presumably we are supposed to scream at the screen: don’t go in there, that Hitler fellow is a bad egg!

But we don’t.  The one thing us rubes in the cheap seats know about Einstein is that he dies in the United States decades later. What we don’t know is how Einstein felt about politics and it’s toxic influence on the sciences. It would have been interesting to know the scientist’s opinion on Prussia’s long struggle between militarism and intellectualism, or what obligation he may have felt to other Jews before he fled. These insights are not to be ours. More time for flashbacks must be made. There is an actual flashback where the young Einstein actually blurts out something like “time moves at the same speed for everyone, everyone knows that.”

For a series banking on the fame of a man synonymous with genius, it gives the audience no credit for knowing anything about him and assumes no willingness to learn more outside the confines of the show. Each character introduces themselves and explains who they are in a small prepared speech as Albert stands flustered, sniffing his own mustache. But a scene of Mileva Marić announcing how hard it is for a woman to be taken seriously in science in the 1930’s is no substitute for a scene that shows us that struggle. We have instead hours of characters telling us how they feel with few opportunities to feel it with them.

There are rare exceptions. For example, in the first episode Herr Einstein passes a Nazi rally in the street. Jews who try to interfere are beaten, and seeing this, Einstein yells at them to stop. This draws the attention of a young boy wearing a swastika on his arm who recognizes the famous professor. Einstein decides to exit, stage left, only to followed by the child, who is, to Einstein’s horror, yelling his name. Reluctantly, Einstein turns to face the boy, only to be asked for his autograph. We feel his relief. We also gain some insight into why Einstein was comfortable living in Germany for so long. It would take a genius to predict that nations sudden embrace of fascism, and we feel it as the betrayal it was.

Einstein decides to leave Germany that very day.

It’s a pity we get only one or two actual scenes such as that per episode. The key to making this show should have been the insight that geniuses have the same emotions as everyone else, and are therefore understandable in terms of their basic humanity. There are few recognizable human characters in Genius.