Genius: Chapter One Review
National Geographic‘s Genius: season 1, episode 1: ‘Chapter One,’ set out to make a man out of an icon. As said icon was Albert Einstein, the task at hand was bringing unfamiliar dimensions to a very familiar figure. This the pilot did do; but with some established methods – sex, violence, and the lone-voice-challenge-to-orthodoxy themes. How it went about doing this, however, is what may have made the effort worthy of the figure.
Full disclosure: I’ve been very critical/ skeptical of the Discovery networks, since their collective pivot to sensationalist programming. The History Channel has become a time capsule of current Americana, I don’t even know what TLC stands for, anymore (but it ain’t The Learning Channel), and most have taken to reality shows & melodramatic recounts only loosely based on actual events.
Of course, as Nat Geo’s first scripted series, it goes without saying that some dramatic license was likely taken with the subjects of Genius. As far as I was concerned, then, these depictions of historical figures were to be taken as purely representational. To that end, two versions of the Einstein figure was presented: a more familiar Elder Einstein (Geoffrey Rush), and his little known Younger self (Johnny Flynn).
Einstein has been regarded as one of the founding Disruptors – the mutant mind-set that shows up, every so often, to shake/ shatter status quos. Not every Disruptor had a steep climb ahead of them (Mozart did have an easier time than Gandhi – despite their respective outcomes); but with both Imperialist & Fascist Germany as the backdrops to this presentation of Einstein, the larger conflict wrote itself. More personal conflict came from the Younger breaking with his father (Eric Colvin) serving as a representation of the establishment – at least for the pilot – while the Elder faced the prospect of an unrecognizably resurgent establishment coming after him.
Genius espoused the need to break tradition, and all the socio-political intrigues & tumult, to that end, revolved around the simple narrative of the Hero’s Journey. Einstein the man had to become the figure, and the pilot served to set that course; but plotting the Younger & Elder stories on parallel timelines served to prevent this from being the established way of presenting the quest trope.
There was a clear divide, between the two Einsteins; and a large enough one to justify a short season, to fill in the gap. With all things being relative, however, it will be the supporting cast that will make or break the series effort.
I couldn’t shake the notion that Rush may have been typecast, in the role; but that may have been the point. As something of a Disruptor to every cast he’s been in, I can see Rush as representing the mad genius we all thought we knew; but with enough quirks to direct attention to the course of his Younger counterpart.
For all of the charm Rush brings to the Elder, and the passion Flynn brings to the Younger, both their performances were firmly anchored by the presented figures around them.
From the very first, Emily Watson‘s Elsa Einstein had the look of someone who has put up with quite a lot – coming across as more of a caretaker, then dutiful wife. At first sight, Samantha Colley‘s Mileva Meric strikes you as an intellectual Atlas – condemned to carry the weight of gender politics on her shoulders. Between these two, alone, much of the Einstein journey seemed already mapped out – as potential polar influences to his coming flaws & redemptions – but the pilot provided a network of memorable influences, to both Einsteins.
I couldn’t help but share in Younger’s sense of self-discovery, once free of father & Fatherland, due to the atmosphere generated by his time with the Winteler brood. By the same token, it would be impossible not to get a sense for what the Elder had to deal with, given current global trends; but this was also due to the convincing zeal of figures like Dr. Lenard (Michael McElhatton). I have every reason to hope that Lenard has been presented to us as a nemesis to Einstein – worthy of an ongoing place, within the quest narrative – but I think much of the show’s melodrama, going forward, had been framed by the outcome to Winteler period.
The parallel narrative spares us the will-they-won’t-they question, pertaining to the loves of Young Einstein (for the duration of the season); but also foreshadowed imprint moments, such as his introduction to Marie Winteler (Shannon Tarbet). To the show’s credit, it didn’t rely on that foreshadowing to justify the Younger’s pivot away from the Winteler promise – his paternal conflict had been established as his core motivator. The episode also provided some justification for the Younger’s next preoccupation. If Marie stood at the start of his journey, then the presented figure of Mileva Maric was a fellow traveler. In what was to be her only scene, however, this Mileva also distinguished herself as no mere distraction (however convincing a distraction Marie was) for Younger, but a challenge.
While foreshadowing suggests much melodrama as a result, going forward, the Mileva teaser was an effective way to hold interest in the Younger’s continuing journey, even as the Elder ended the episode with a harsh lesson. Nationalism was a global problem.
There were some things familiar about the production – from obvious comparisons to be made with A Beautiful Mind, to Hans Zimmer‘s score (turned out someone didn’t ‘borrow’ a bit of Inception, for the Weimer PM’s fateful drive, after all). With the effort to visualize the Einstein view of Life, the Universe, and Everything, he may have even been given his own Wilson ball – but none of these count as complaints.
‘Chapter One’ benefited from Ron Howard‘s direction (his first TV directing in decades, actually); but a strong start is still only a start. For all of its strengths (as an episode) there seemed to be a lot of room for speculation, regarding Genius‘ prospects as a series, going forward. I say this as reviewer of the one episode, of course – a second season had already been greenlit, ahead of the pilot’s screening (as good a vote of confidence as any).
What the pilot accomplished was presenting two fully formed, fleshed-out versions of a single iconic figure. We know the sea-change – from the Younger, eager to escape Germany, to the Elder, refusing to surrender it – is the thing to be explored; and that the perils of Einstein’s passions will be a constant. The question remains, however, whether this will be enough, and how much more will the series bring to the narrative.
What the pilot leaves the series to work with is a promise to cover more bases then one is likely to expect, given the subject character. I expect subject themes to include a battle of the sexes, centered around Einstein & Mileva; a battle between ideas & ideals, between the Disruptors & the Establishment; and a battle of egos, with Einstein & Lenard’s feud getting its due; and, of course, the towering icon of science & reason coming to grips with the simple frustrations of being Human.
Even if this presentation of Einstein, the man, doesn’t inspire your inner Disruptor, the Genius pilot should at least inspire some disruption to the established presentation of Einstein, the figure.
I’d consider that break with tradition to be a good start.
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