What does it mean to be a genius? For the second time, National Geographic’s anthology series introduces the idea of genius as one inextricably tied to that of being a womanizer — a position that, in the wake of “Time’s Up” and “Me Too” doesn’t sit particularly well. There are other, general sins Genius commits, like staying strictly to the rote beats of a traditional biopic, or the same unfortunate accents and stilted dialogue that also plagued its Albert Einstein-focused season. But what stands out the most in this new chapter, which chronicles the life of prolific Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, is a legacy of using and discarding women in the service of artistic passions. It’s all summed up by an unfortunate scene where, as Picasso paints Guernica, he laughs joyously after provoking two of his much younger mistresses to physically fight in his studio. At this point, the series could well be called “Great Womanizers of the 20th Century.”
Some might argue that at least Genius: Picasso refrains from deifying the painter, played as a young man by Alex Rich and an older one by Antonio Banderas. But the series is obviously going to be sympathetic to its gifted subject. Picasso was an extraordinary painter, one who was also never satisfied unless he was creating and innovating and breaking the rules of art. The years of Picasso’s young adulthood, in the early 1900s, are some of the most creatively interesting times in the modern era, where things were moving very fast as a new century dawned and progressive ideas were taking flight. Picasso, living in Paris at the time, was flanked by a number of other exceptional artistic minds, and his development and changes as an artist are genuinely interesting. But every time the series shifts from that timeline to the 1940s (much in the same way it did with Einstein), that momentum is lost.
Where it ends up is with an old man who is still catered to by a revolving door of young muses. Both Einstein and Picasso were men with voracious sexual appetites that existed alongside their intellectual or artistic pursuits, but they expressed those desires through emotional manipulation and a — perhaps unwitting — abuse of power (though Picasso seems pretty well aware of the power his celebrity affords him). “Artists must have no rules, no restrictions,” Picasso tells his latest conquest, Françoise Gilot (Clémence Poésy), a young French painter. But it’s also an eye-rolling indulgence from a man who was blessed by money and the kindness of strangers wherever he turned. Picasso’s genius opened doors (and legs) for him wherever he went for almost his entire life, but — as of the first four episodes given to critics — there’s no examination of how this is an extraordinary and unusual privilege, one that he arrogantly came to expect.
Picasso’s story, like Einstein’s, is actually at its most interesting when it focuses on the women who bolstered, inspired, tended to, and challenged him. Samantha Colley’s role as the French photographer Dora Maar is again a scene-stealer, just like Colley’s role as Einstein’s lover Mileva Marić was in the first season (Colley is one of several cast members who returned for this new installment). Maar is a fascinating figure, as is Gilot, both of whom had to fight against the expectations of the era — and their families — to become artists. And then, they are reduced to fighting against each other for Picasso’s attentions, a man given every opportunity and encouragement since birth. The man is a genius, absolutely! But as a dramatic narrative, Pablo’s story is less compelling than the women he sought to surround himself with.
As the two Picassos, both Rich and Banderas are suitably charming, and do their best with the uneven material. The miniseries moves at an odd pace, often rushing through important moments (like the death of Picasso’s sister, an event that fueled much of his early work), and telling instead of showing character traits in a way that ends up flattening the story. Picasso claims to truly love his buttoned-up mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter (Poppy Delevingne), but she barely has a role here, and there’s never a speck of warmth or affection between them to sell the truth of that statement. After awhile, the story makes the women interchangeable, falling into a predictable pattern: Picasso falls for someone’s beauty, he seduces them, uses them as a muse, and discards them. Sometimes they go crazy, sometimes he fathers a child along the way, but the series flippantly wonders, who can be bogged down by such details? He’s an artist! Picasso’s life is a focus without ever being an examination.
In fairness there are some things to like about the series, like its lovely locations and costuming, and a suitably paint-filled title sequence. Occasionally Genius will even show how Picasso might have visually translated the world around him into his works, but it’s really just a tease. The series misses so many opportunities by shying away from anything that might lead to more dynamic storytelling or truly illuminating the lives of its subjects. It’s a show about an artist without rules, yet it limits itself by playing it safe.
Genius: Picasso premieres Tuesday, April 24th on NatGeo