Genius: National Geographic’s Life of Einstein

Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein.
Albert Einstein (Geoffrey Rush) witnesses the rise of the Nazis in National Geographic’s ‘Genius.’

National Geographic’s first scripted program, Genius, explores the life of the man whose name has become synonymous with the title. The series, produced by Ron Howard and Brian Glazer and based on the biography by Walter Isaacson, focuses on Albert Einstein the man while also revealing Einstein the genius.

Johnny Flynn and Shannon Tarbet in 'Genius'.
Young Albert (Johnny Flynn) demonstrates his theory of relativity to Marie (Shannon Tarbet) via bicycle in ‘Genius.’

Shifting back and forth between the late 1890s, when Albert was a student struggling to find his place, and the early 1930s, when Dr. Einstein is confronted by the rising tide of fascism in Germany, Genius also introduces us to the women in his life, including his first wife, Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley), his second wife, Elsa (Emily Watson), his first girlfriend, Marie Winteler (Shannon Tarbet), and his secretary/mistress Betty (Charity Wakefield), with whom he shares a tryst in his first scene. Between his amusing lectures and the messy dealings of his romantic life, Rush makes Einstein a charming and sympathetic character, while Johnny Flynn’s young Einstein is a more passionate and volatile one, the two linked by their curiosity and intelligence.

Over the course of the first episode, we see the progressive development of Einstein’s political awareness and philosophy of anti-nationalism and rejection of militarism. After his family relocates to Milan, Italy, Einstein leaves Germany to enroll at university in Zurich, Switzerland, where he rooms with the Winteler family; while quietly developing a romance with Marie, Albert finds himself influenced by her father, Jost (Nicholas Rowe), a development Albert’s father (Eric Colvin) finds objectionable.

Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson in 'Genius'.
Albert and Elsa (Emily Watson) share a moment.

In 1932, after witnessing a steadily-increasing series of brutal Nazi acts, Albert and Elsa decide to leave Germany, but find themselves stalled by an officious US embassy agent (Vincent Kartheiser, Mad Men’s Pete Campbell).

Genius is a fascinating exploration of the life of Einstein and an examination of the rise of fascism; the anti-intellectualism, politicization, and polarization of academia are disconcerting, and several scenes will seem very familiar to anyone paying attention to current events, from the angry speech denouncing Einstein’s theory that “offends the common sense of German scientists” to the Nazi assault on Jewish citizens in the street by a gang of brownshirts, Einstein’s political awakening looks an awful lot like the present day, and director Ron Howard deftly makes the point without being heavy-handed or glib.

There is some content that may be objectionable for young viewers, but they will most likely be bored by the series anyway. For older kids, Genius will add humanity and context to their science class and I heartily recommend it. Episodes air on the National Geographic Channel on Tuesday evenings. The first season includes 10 episodes.

Jim MacQuarrie is a comics and animation geek, a professional cartoonist and graphic designer, professional balloon animal twister, a certified archery instructor (and yes, his arrows are green), former homeless person and occasional gadfly. He has three children who are all grown up, and an incredibly patient wife who is waiting for him to do likewise. Together they co-write the lifestyle blog Blue Collar, Black Tie.