You don't have to be a 'Genius' to like Albert Einstein drama

Ron Howard directs Geoffrey Rush in "Genius", National Geographic's smart, entertaining drama unraveling the passions and politics that shaped Albert Einstein.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read
Robert Viglasky, National Geographic/Robert Viglasky

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.

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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.

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Samantha Colley stars as Mileva Maric, Einstein's fellow scientist (and lover).

Dusan Martincek/National Geographic

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.

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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.

You might not come out of "Genius" with a thorough grasp of theoretical physics, but you'll certainly pick up on the political relevance of Einstein's story.

The show explores the rise of nationalism in Germany, showing how Einstein was forced to confront these troubled times despite wanting no part of them. It's a timely story given the rise of nationalism and -- some would argue -- anti-intellectualism in the US and Europe today. Einstein even faces some Trump-style extreme vetting as the US government threatens to block his flight from the menace of fascism.

Vincent Kartheiser channels his oily "Mad Men" character Pete Campbell as the immigration official wielding his rubber stamp as a weapon, trapping the world's smartest man between Nazi thuggery and American paranoia.

Entertaining and a little educational, "Genius" is a smart show that might teach you a little something, whether it's about politics, physics or the man himself. You don't have to be a genius to enjoy that.

"Genius" is on National Geographic in the UK on Sunday 23 April, in the US Tuesday 25 April and in Australia on April 24.

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