What do you picture when you think of a “genius”?
You might imagine an eccentric figure in a tweed jacket throwing out ideas as wild as his hair.
We owe a lot of that image to Albert Einstein, making him the perfect subject of the new drama series “Genius”, but the show aims to go far deeper than the intense exterior to reveal the passion, politics and personality behind the stereotype.
“Genius” is a 10-episode series set to examine a different brilliant figure in each installment. It’s National Geographic’s first fully scripted drama as the popular science brand joins Neflix, Amazon and other online platforms in creating original content. There are some suitably heavyweight creative figures on board: Gigi Pritzker, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are in charge, while Geoffrey Rush stars as the wild-haired Einstein we recognise.
Johnny Flynn from Netflix hit “Lovesick” plays an Einstein we’re less familiar with. Flynn carries early episodes as the young Albert, railing against stifling turn-of-the-century German academia while finding time to court two very different women, including fellow student Mileva Maric.
Samantha Colley plays Serbian scientist Maric, a brilliant physicist in her own right whose name was little known. “Genius” delves into both the sexism and racism she faced, just one of the ways the show explores context and nuance beyond simply telling Einstein’s life story.
Producer Pritzker originally intended to adapt Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein into a film, but the rise of prestige television gives space for more than a straight biopic. Instead, we follow Einstein as the focal point of a history of the 20th century, a history of transformation in science, culture, politics, even war.
So we watch as young Albert’s clashes with dogmatic tutors pale in comparison with the conflict he faces as an older man in the 1930s witnessing the rise of fascism in his home country. A German Jew and one of the most famous men in the world, Einstein finds himself caught up in political struggle and violence no matter how hard he tries to avoid such earthly concerns.
Expanded Einstein archives open to the public
Directed by Howard, the opening episode of “Genius” cleverly lays out these intertwined stories. It moves with pace between lecture theatres, where Einstein is in his element, to the outside world, where his genius is seen as a threat to the status quo.
The story opens with an explosive assassination quickly followed by a lusty sex scene, so there’s plenty of drama right from the start. In the less lurid episode that follows, the show lightly sketches some of the scientific concepts Einstein pioneered. He demonstrates the basics of relativity to his sweetheart, for example, with a bicycle race through sun-dappled countryside.