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'American Genius,' A Good Idea Lost in the Telling
June 1, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 63 comments

Ideas — where they come from, how they form and why they matter — don’t always translate well on the small screen. That’s why the ambitious, high-minded National Geographic documentary series American Genius is such an exercise in frustration.

The idea behind American Genius is certainly sound. Inspiration doesn’t just happen in a vacuum, the program argues. The world’s great inventions were more often than not the result of bitter personal rivalries played out against a backdrop of cutthroat competition.

National Geographic Channel is billing the four-week, eight-part series as “a miniseries event,” an overused label in danger of losing its meaning. American Genius debuts June 1 with back-to-back episodes, the self-explanatory Jobs vs. Gates, followed by Wright Brothers vs. Curtiss.

Those interested in TV — that means you, or you probably wouldn’t be visiting a site called TV Worth Watching — will want to make time for the June 8 segment Farnsworth vs. Sarnoff, (right) which reveals the animosity behind what became a media revolution.

Farnsworth vs. Sarnoff has the added appeal of a David vs. Goliath tale, pitting a high-school science student — Philo Farnsworth, who sketches his idea for an “electric television” for his teacher at the time — against RCA founder David Sarnoff, who vows to acquire Farnsworth’s patent, and the presumed riches that will come with it, at virtually any cost.

The dwindling handful of newspaper readers will appreciate the follow-up, Hearst vs. Pulitzer, that also airs June 8. Hearst vs. Pulitzer is a peppy flashback to a time when flashy newspaper headlines and sensational stories redefined the way Americans got their news — until Farnsworth and Sarnoff got in the way, that is.

American Genius concludes June 22 with Tesla vs. Edison, and shows how a simple $50,000 wager led to a spirited rivalry between engineering pioneers Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison that changed the world.

There’s good reason to open American Genius with Jobs vs. Gates, though. American Genius debuts the night following the return of AMC’s period drama Halt and Catch Fire, set in the early days of PC technology, when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates would have been just another pair of college-age nerds. There may come a time when Apple and Microsoft are no more relevant in the future than Atari and Kodak are today, but right now there’s hardly a feature of our modernized, high-tech society that Apple and Microsoft haven’t touched in some way.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were profoundly different personalities, but they were single-minded in their pursuit of a dream to bring a personal computer into people’s homes that wasn’t the size of a Safeway.

True, this is compelling subject matter, but sadly American Genius suffers from the tyranny of mediocrity. It’s industrial filmmaking at its most obvious and straightforward — the kind of filmmaking that’s apt to put students to sleep in the classroom while giving the teacher a break from actual teaching.

The background music plays like something out of a Michael Bay film: obnoxious, bombastic and overblown. And it never lets up for a second. Not. One. Second.

Relentless, non-stop music is almost always a sign of lack of confidence in the material — and, worse, condescending toward the audience. There’s a reason 60 Minutes doesn’t use music. Or dramatized recreations for that matter.

Too many of today’s TV documentaries are designed for an easily distracted audience — dumb TV for people who are dumb. Except that people are not dumb. Not everyone can be a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, but the really successful TV programs often succeed by not talking down to their audience. The Big Bang Theory might sound like a dumb idea for a sitcom — unrepentant nerds live next door to a sexy neighbor — but it’s whipsaw smart in the execution. American Genius might be about smart people — geniuses, in fact — but it’s not particularly smart filmmaking. Ken Burns, it ain’t.

Interestingly, the best parts in American Genius — and the reason to watch — are the talking heads, anecdotes from actual living, breathing witnesses to history. The real star of Jobs vs. Gates is Steve Wozniak, aka “The Woz,” who natters on about things like the “eureka moment” with an almost irrepressible energy. Wozniak has an outsized personality, and a mind to match.

American Genius is not awful. It’s just that it’s mediocre — which seems worse somehow. There’s a good program in there, somewhere. The idea is good. Good ideas don’t always bear fruit, though.

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