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John Doyle: A genuinely good drama about that rascal genius Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was a rogue and roué, a man open to a life of sensual pleasure.

When we first meet him in Genius (starts Tuesday, National Geographic Channel at 9 p.m.) he is, shall we say, shtupping his much younger assistant Betty with gusto in an empty classroom in Berlin. It's the 1920s and Einstein is middle-aged and a very famous Nobel laureate. The most famous scientist on Earth. He knows it, too.

Genius, based on Walter Isaacson's lengthy and comprehensive biography, is a first-rate, vastly entertaining and smart series. Shockingly so, actually. Movies and TV productions about serious science tend to idealize heroic figures as troubled souls tormented by their own precocity and damaged by the mundane world. Albert Einstein was none of those things. A genius yes, and definitely a rogue.

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The 10-part series is the first-ever scripted series from National Geographic Channel (which is free on most Canadian cable outlets right now) and, given the sheer amount of quality drama on TV, it had to be exceptional. It is. Executive produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, with Howard directing the first episode, it is written in part by Isaacson. Geoffrey Rush plays the older Einstein, Emily Watson plays his wife Elsa and Johnny Flynn is the young Einstein.

Rush is wonderful as the mature Einstein, all wry humour and lust for life. Much of the first episode is devoted to his slow realization, often prodded by Elsa, that he should take the Nazi threat seriously and simply leave Germany as soon as possible. He's reluctant. He's enjoying himself too much. In fact, he thinks that Betty (Charity Wakefield) should move into his home to, you know, help him with his work and correspondence. Elsa, eye-rolling and pragmatic (Watson is exceptionally good as the earthy, skeptical wife of a famous man), is more interested in getting him and herself out of the country.

Soon enough, the drama takes us back to Einstein's youth and Johnny Flynn (from the Netflix series Lovesick) is Rush's equal in capturing the spirit of this brazenly non-conformist genius. We get a good sense of how the younger Einstein went astray for years, mainly because he was bored by conventional education and, sometimes, because he kept falling for smart, strong-willed handsome women.

In the usual kind of biopic, there is a tendency to use hokey dialogue and overwrought scenes to dramatize important moments in the life of a very famous, gifted person. Here, the tone is kept light but not dumb and Einstein's importance in physics is telegraphed as a rebellious spirit of creative genius. This is not a tortured genius; it is a man who is madly alive to everything, easily smitten by beauty and often rescued by his own sense of humour. He's a thorough, non-conformist charmer.

Of course, there are scenes such as the one early on, when Betty tells him: "For a man who is a genius about the universe, you don't know the first thing about people, do you?" But he does know about people, actually. He always has, and when he says that his work in physics is about "invisible forces that nobody understands" he also knows that "invisible forces" include love, lust, pride and personal pain.

While Genius humanizes Einstein with aplomb and without resorting to hackneyed vignettes that illustrate tortured genius, it also steps deftly into an area that has a particular contemporary resonance.

As the narrative moves toward Einstein's escape from Germany, it emphasizes how easy it is for politicians to heap scorn on science and claim that there is partisanship involved in what scientists believe is rigorous truth. And there is a chilling scene at the end of the first episode, when Einstein and Elsa are summoned to the U.S. embassy in Berlin to discuss his imminent journey to the States.

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The couple are curious about why they are being questioned. Then the U.S. official (played icily by Vincent Kartheiser, who was Pete Campbell on Mad Men) begins asking Einstein about his "political creed" and informs him that the FBI, and J. Edgar Hover in particular, want to know about a lot of the scientist's past and his present views on things. It is a scene meant to make the viewer uneasy, and it does.

Genius is not a work of genius TV storytelling but it is gorgeous, smart and entertaining about the life of a rascally genius. Very highly recommended.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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