One of the awkward moments during the TV Critics press tour in January was a presentation for Genius: Picasso (starts Tuesday, National Geographic Channel, 9 p.m.).
The first season of Genius, the anthology drama series, had dealt with the life of Albert Einstein. It was a good, solid series, presenting Einstein as a rascal and a roué, a man enjoying a life of sensual pleasure while shifting science onward. It established the National Geographic channel as an outlet willing to produce finely textured drama, a cut above banal biopics. Pablo Picasso is a vastly different figure to tackle. His personal life was more public and his treatment of women was known and had a much darker hue than Einstein’s relationships. It was put to the director, Ken Biller, that the drama celebrated a man who was physically abusive to women.
The director was instantly defensive. “I’m not exactly sure what you’re referring to in terms of Picasso being physically abusive. I mean, this show is impeccably researched. I don’t think the goal of the show is to celebrate someone. I think the goal of the show is to explore a very complex, complicated individual and all of the people around him. This is the stuff of drama. We are not sugar-coating Picasso. We are not pretending that everything that he said or did was admirable. He’s a human being who made lots of mistakes. He did lots of extraordinary things and lots of not so nice things. This is not hagiography. We’re not trying to tell you that Picasso is the patron saint of Malaga. We’re trying to explore a very extraordinary character and the people around him, and we’re showing the good, the bad and the ugly.”
You can tell from the resistive reply that this is tricky territory these days. When the Picasso drama was commissioned and written, there would have been less sensitivity to the myth of the misogynist genius in the arts. Less patience with the convention of the hearty male virtuoso around whom female characters are mere satellites.
To place Genius: Picasso in that context in an interesting exercise. In fact, it is a more rewarding study than simple enjoyment of the drama. It is deeply flawed, uneven and while lovely to look at and energized by a sometimes pungent, powerful performance by Antonio Banderas as the artist in adulthood and old age, it often feels superficial and false. It is a salutary lesson – the life of an artist isn’t always fodder for trenchant drama. The mind of an artist, the engine that drives him or her, is unreachable as narrative.
What one gets instead is the known history, dramatized more for simplicity than sophisticated insight. Here, the story shifts regularly between two periods and, really, two characters. There is the young Pablo (splendidly played by Alex Rich), the gifted artist trying to find singularity in his work and reaching to set himself apart. Oh he’s a rogue and full of arrogance and passion, but lacks focus. Then there is the elder Picasso, world famous and rich, but also conceited and relying on younger women to fuel his energy.
There has to be a point where the two figures are reconciled and the value of the artist’s life and work is offered to the viewer. That pivotal point is presented to us as his famous anti-war painting Guernica. He is asked to create a giant work of art for the Paris Exposition Universelle and it is suggested that he can be as political as he likes. He is initially reluctant, saying, “Pictures cannot stop a war.” It is a woman who goads him into putting his heart and soul into the work, taunting him for being smug.
For much of the narrative, this Pablo Picasso is more interested in looking at women than in listening to them. He is a figure committed to reinventing himself and his art and, with each phase of his journey, there is new woman, a new mistress, a new muse. The strongest figure among them is Dora Maar, the French photographer and painter (wonderfully played by Samantha Colley who played Einstein’s first wife in the first edition of Genius) and the only standout female figure. The others, for all that they are given time in the ten-part series, seem to revert to the status of woman obliged to tell Picasso that he’s a genius.
He is indeed a genius and Banderas clearly relishes the role. (He has said he’s waited for this role his entire career, having grown up in Malaga, Picasso’s birthplace.) There are times – certainly in the first few episodes sent to critics – when the actor’s energy is the strongest element. At other times, the dialogue falls flat and there seems to be something missing. What’s left out is the elusive spirit inside the genius that cannot be found, simplified and dramatized. You end up wondering about the women in his life and are puzzled by what they saw in him. He seems more prickly jerk than genius.