A lot of the prestige television shows from the past decade focus on so-called “difficult men.” These anti-heroes are flawed but brilliant, and audiences root for them even as time and time again the characters do things that should make you wonder if they’re deserving of any of this praise. Genius, the National Geographic Channel’s new series about Albert Einstein, seems poised to cast the famous scientist as one of these difficult men. However, after two episodes, Genius is doing a great job making Einstein look difficult, but the show stumbles when it tries to make him worth rooting for because it can’t sell his, well, genius.
Consider Don Draper on AMC’s Mad Men. Don is a pretty reprehensible human — he’s a womanizer who treats both his wives terribly, he’s petty, and he’s also generally kind of an asshole. But, we still root for him, because the show contextualizes his many flaws and showcases what he’s actually phenomenal at: advertising.
Part of Genius’s struggle is that it’s much easier to show an audience that Don Draper is the best at advertising because viewers know what a good ad looks like. When Don emotionally invokes nostalgia while christening Kodak’s carousel slide projector, we can connect with that idea and appreciate it. There’s an emotional response to the intellectual achievement our protagonist just pulled off.
Complex physics and mathematical equations don’t invoke the same sort of immediate connection with the audience. Heck, the thought of such advanced math probably gives at least a few people watching at home hives. Making Einstein’s genius feel real is a difficult task given how brainy and foreign his expertise is to most people. That’s not to say you can’t get audiences to appreciate intelligence that they don’t understand. Hopefully, the average Breaking Bad viewer doesn’t cook up drugs, but the show really sells us on the fact that Walter White is really good at making meth.
Genius isn’t doing this. It’s mostly Yung Albert and his peers talking about physics in broad terms, which isn’t exactly gripping, with an occasional visualization thrown in. The closest we get to really connecting with both Einstein and Mileva’s intelligence comes when the two are comparing molecules to people in a crowded room. But even then, it doesn’t really work, because there’s no sense of what this information means. It’s just two characters who we’re told are smart talking about physics that may or may not matter.
After two episodes, at least, Genius is too content to rest on its premise. Of course Albert Einstein is a genius — he’s Albert frickin’ Einstein. You know, the “E=mc2” guy. Pretty much everybody in the world knows he’s smart.
That’s true — we know he’s smart. But knowing and feeling are two different things. Einstein’s thoughtless cruelty towards Mileva, whose struggle as a brilliant disabled woman in a man’s world, makes Albert come across as truly the villain in his own story. Genius actually does an admirable job of giving Mileva’s story some weight, so it doesn’t feel good to watch Yung Albert treat her the way he does. Einstein doesn’t have any redeeming qualities to counterbalance this ugliness yet — except maybe for his intellect — but Genius hasn’t made that count yet.
Maybe that’ll change as the show continues. It better, because Einstein’s ways with women don’t get much better in his real biography. Genius is trying to tell Einstein’s real story, and to its credit, the show is diving headlong into the unsavory aspects of his character. That being said, it’s still putting him and his genius on a pedestal, ultimately saying he’s someone to be admired. So far, Genius isn’t smart enough to do balance these two ideas. We’re just watching a jerk, and we’ll have to take their word that he’s a genius.
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