Genius by Stephen Hawking review – why not just let Hawking present?

It’s not their fault, but these ‘ordinary people’ conducting silly experiments add little to our understanding of space-time. Plus: a funnier time with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

‘Anyone,” says Stephen Hawking, “can think like a genius.” Not that I want to contradict the intellectual giant, but on the basis of this documentary I don’t have high hopes that he’s right. Three people – “ordinary people”, we are informed – are gathered in New York’s Times Square, when Hawking appears on a giant screen after a dramatic countdown. “I did not expect to see Stephen Hawking. It was a complete surprise and shock,” says Marisol, which is strange, since I’m guessing she has signed up to a programme called Genius by Stephen Hawking (National Geographic Channel, Saturday).

The theme this week is time travel (it’s the final one of this series, which has also covered aliens and the meaning of life) and we are to tour the space-time continuum with our everypeople guides. Given the choice, I would much prefer a proper documentary on time travel fronted by the magnificent physics professor, but science programmes now are about as challenging as loading a dishwasher (with a few exceptions – mainly thanks, these days, to Jim Al-Khalili). So you need a wheeze like following some “ordinary” people, including a random British man in America called Paul who says things like “I feel excited to contemplate the issue of time travel”. He’s likable though, as are the other two. None of this is their fault.

The series of experiments they conduct takes so long, it’s as if time itself has slowed down. The first, which introduces the fourth dimension of time, involves them solving a hilariously easy puzzle to find a party, walking the streets of New York to get there, and then plotting their steps on a stack of glass coffee tables. Eventually Norman, the only one with a bit of sense, says: “With this you can see you can’t separate space from time.” They high-five because he is, I believe, thinking like a genius.

Punctuating the action are interviews with our guides, filmed in that kind of warm, soft light beloved of US television, explaining what just happened on screen in case the viewer is not thinking like a genius, and can’t understand what is right in front of them. “To our absolute amazement a DeLorean came speeding around the corner,” says Paul, just after the car from Back to the Future came speeding around the corner. “All of a sudden, another DeLorean appears,” he says, as another DeLorean appears, all of a sudden. “Tom opens the back of his trunk,” says Marisol, following a scene of a man called Tom opening the boot of his van. Who is this made for? Six-year-olds would roll their eyes at this patronising nonsense. That, combined with the constant background music, makes this documentary borderline unwatchable.

Which is a shame because it is interesting, and there is a genuine moment of revelation – for me, at least. Maybe everyone else knows this already (Einstein, a proper genius, did) but people are already travelling into the future. Go up a mountain, fly in an aeroplane, even go up in a lift, says Hawking, and time speeds up (it’s to do with the weaker gravitational pull as you get further away from the planet). They prove it with a couple of atomic clocks; they take one up a mountain, wait 24 hours (they entertain themselves with, as Hawking jokes, “a little light reading” as the camera pans to Marisol reading his bestselling A Brief History of Time), then compare times. The mountain clock is 20 nanoseconds ahead, or 20 billionths of a second. Not enough to check the lottery numbers, granted, but it is still the future – and a small moment of awe.

Rebecca Bunch, over on the first episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Netflix), is explaining her own theory of time. “You know, time is a funny thing. Sometimes time itself tells you it’s time to move on to other moments in time,” she says to the baffled directors at her thrusting Manhattan law firm who are offering to make her partner. Before long, she has left her glitzy apartment and job, and moved to West Covina, California (“only two hours from the beach; four in traffic”), where her boyfriend from summer camp 10 years earlier just happens to live.

The musical romantic comedy arrived on Netflix just over a week ago and I’m hooked. Not even 10 minutes into it, Bunch is leading a glorious song-and-dance number that ends with her perched on a skyward-soaring giant pretzel. It’s funny and dark, and although there are elements of predictability (in the second episode, it’s obvious what will happen when a dressed-down Bunch, pining for her ex-boyfriend, goes to the supermarket) it’s as sharp as a wasp sting.

The will-she-get-her-man? question drives the story, but the most compelling relationship is between neurotic, high-achieving Bunch and Paula, the downtrodden paralegal at her new firm who is part-mother figure, part-enabler of her demented plans. There are good jokes that take on privilege, race and sexism, but it’s the songs that lift this series from a decent comedy to something strange and special. I’m four episodes in and every one – from Bunch’s patriarch-baiting Sexy Getting Ready Song, to a boyband take-off, to a black and white tap-dance routine – has been a belter. It’s a welcome temporary escape from these bleak times – or at least from a weekend of wall-to-wall sport.


Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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