National Geographic Channel's first fictionalized series premiers today. "Genius," based on Walter Isaacson's biography, opens with the bloody assassination of Jewish German foreign minister Walter Rathenau in 1922, followed by Albert Einstein blatantly having an affair with his secretary.
It's the kind of opening that contemporary TV shows use to draw viewers in, even when the rest of the series is comparatively tame. But the opening is also a good summary of what "Genius" is about — the gradual Nazi takeover of Germany that forces Jewish Einstein to flee the country as an older man, and the young Einstein's struggles to interact with those around him — including women.
When Einstein asks his secretary why he can't love both her and his second wife, Elsa, ranting about the failures of monogamy, his secretary responds, "You don't know the first thing about people, do you?"
And there is "Genius's" theme, at least when it focuses on young Einstein, played with conceited charm by Johnny Flynn. In the first episode of this 10-part series, the storyline switches between young Einstein and the older Einstein viewers are more familiar with — the one with a mustache and flyaway gray hair — played by Geoffrey Rush.
In young Einstein's story, viewers see his often failed attempts to conform with the strictures of school. He can't contain himself from interrupting and correcting his professors. He sees no point in learning the humanities — he only cares about physics.
And yet, according to "Genius," Einstein's charms (certainly aided by Flynn's matinee idol looks) cause multiple women to fall for him, although he is often too distracted and too self-centered to give them the treatment they deserve. It's a stereotypical portrayal of a genius whose mind can grasp the trappings of the universe, but can't seem to understand a fellow human being.
Young Einstein's story takes a brief backseat as he and viewers meet the scientist's first wife, Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley) in the second episode. Maric, viewers learn through flashbacks, had none of Einstein's academic advantages, as she fought for a place in higher education, often the only girl in her classes, her intelligence constantly doubted. Coming from this background, she fears Einstein's advances, claiming she needs no distractions from her goals.
"Genius" is a compelling look at the flaws and brilliance of a man so many know only as a caricature of a scientist. As executive producer Brian Grazer told the Salt Lake Tribune, "failure is a big part of Einstein's journey." Viewers are able to watch as this genius navigates society's rules, cruelties and the fickleness of fame.
"Genius" contains scattered, mild swearing, some violence and multiple scenes of sexuality.