What is Genius? From Mozart in the Jungle to London Spy

When I was in college I took a film class on Biopics. The central question of the class was, What makes a great life? And furthermore, What makes that great life worth telling? Indeed, the crux of a compelling narrative is, in my opinion, interesting characters. But so much of our current television landscape goes beyond depicting simply interesting characters into depicting extraordinary ones, however that may look. Don Draper, Walter White, Carrie Mathison, and Eliot from Mr Robot are all exceptional people in some way or another. Commonplace lives are boring, while great ones are watchable.

So how do you tell the story of genius? Amadeus (1984) picked the lens of mediocrity in Salieri, using his averageness to elevate and evaluate Mozart's talent. I still maintain that movie is one of the finest depictions of humans grappling with the edges of their abilities ever made. Yet more often, biopics take the genius as a given and instead depict the life circumstances surrounding that genius, rarely questioning it in the first place.

This is why Mozart in the Jungle, Amazon's surprise winner at the Golden Globes, is refreshing to me. It's about the New York Symphony, with its conductor and all its players, so it's not about an individual genius - it's about an entire body of people channeling some original sort of genius lying dormant in classical sheet music through their own individual interpretations, and hence risking being second-rate. Rodrigo, the flamboyantly rule-breaking conductor, has a multitude of talent as a musician and conductor, but he must contend with the mediocrity of his orchestra; as he says after a performance, "it wasn't bad. But it was also not not bad." Hailey, one of his youngest oboists, wants to be great someday, but only within the confines of an orchestra - why not on her own as a soloist? There's also Gloria, who gave up her singing career in favor of fundraising, or Thomas, the maestro emeritus who's now trying his hand at composing and will not listen to the critics who call him derivative. In essence, what I like about this different take on talent is that it cannot be taken for granted because it is not a constant. It's a highly flammable variable that can get extinguished at any time thanks to disuse, fear, or lack of work ethic.

Does Rodrigo hear his orchestra's talent going astray? 

Stories then seem especially tragic when talent is extinguished too early, as in when someone dies. In London Spy, BBC2's emotional spy thriller, Danny (the always watchable Ben Whishaw) falls for an inscrutable investment banker, Alex (Edward Holcroft), whose tight-lipped, tight-assed virginal innocence stands in for the more sinister government secrets locked in his mind. When Danny discovers Alex's decomposing body in a trunk at the end of the first episode, he's convinced that Alex was murdered because he knew something important. Over the course of the five episodes, we go from disbelief to disregard to conviction of Alex's mathematical genius as we get closer to what those secrets are. Yet if Alex hadn't been endowed with such gifts, how would his life have been different? Would he have loved the same way? The show is brooding and dark, and at the end we're left a bit unsure of everything except what genius can do to haunt someone's life.

What did Alex know?

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, knows about the haunting notion of genius. In her new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, she gives all us wannabe-artists the hope we need by reconstructing the concept of genius. Nodding to her previous book's enormous success, she writes that she would be plagued with self-doubt as a writer when tasked with chasing that success if she had believed that a genius was something she just inextricably was. Instead, she believes, as we all should, that genius is like magic, lingering in the atmosphere, and if we're lucky enough and we work hard enough, it may flow through us momentarily. That's why similar movies get made at the same time, or why two startup ideas are weirdly similar, or why someone may write 'your' book before you do. It's the genius finding a vessel, or few, at just the right time. Most of the time, our creativity is a slog of hard work, but we do it so we can be ready to receive the genius if it comes.

This is such a healthier perspective on genius, I wish film and tv shows would pick it up more. That way, all of us with any sort of creative aspirations wouldn't be crippled by insecurity if we saw more people like us on screen. We're ordinary, we work hard, and perhaps the work possesses genius. The trouble is, is that watchable?

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