Most people know Albert Einstein the physicist. But how many know Albert Einstein the lothario?
Well, thanks to National Geographic’s Genius, you’ll soon have a chance to meet him; it doesn’t take too long for the series’ pilot to grace viewers with the sight of the scientist in flagrante with his assistant, Betty, and later during a flashback to his younger days (played by Lovesick‘s Johnny Flynn), in a more tender embrace with Marie Winteler, the young schoolteacher recruited to be his tutor in every subject but math and physics. But as easily as he might have mastered the concepts of physics, Einstein still has a hard time understanding women — something the drama reiterates a few times in its first two episodes. While the scientist questions why he must be limited to one romantic partner, Betty comments, “For a man who is an expert on the universe, you don’t know the first thing about people, do you?”
While the depiction of Einstein’s love life — the drama delves deep into his helpless-heartbreaker tendencies — offers a new way of looking at a man we often define by his scientific accomplishments, it also seems to be the only source of a narrative drive in this portrayal of Einstein’s days as a young upstart student at the Zurich Polytechnic Institute. As a result, the 10-episode series is at its most compelling when it tackles its “present,” the period during Hitler’s rise to power, as the politically rebellious older Einstein (played with uncanny resemblance by Geoffrey Rush) grapples with rising anti-Semitism and its effect on his future. This story line, in particular, feels unexpectedly timely as it features a scene in which the acclaimed physicist encounters visa woes as he attempts to depart Berlin for America.
Einstein isn’t the sole focus of the limited series. True to its name, Genius also touches on other brilliant individuals in his life — including his future wife, and scientist in her own right, Mileva Maric, whose younger self (played by Samantha Colley), is the focus of the flashbacks in the second episode; Maric deals with multiple hurdles in her quest for an education — something we see Einstein encounter only a fraction of. The contrast serves to highlight the lack of conflict in Einstein’s story thus far.
Entertaining enough with its blend of biographical storytelling and theory-illustrating special effects, Genius could easily be at home on PBS. As one of National Geographic’s first scripted dramas, it’s a perfectly serviceable step in the right direction.