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Watch people time travel in PBS’ great series Genius by Stephen Hawking

The clue for the first challenge in Genius By Stephen Hawking, PBS' new series.

When PBS first announced Genius By Stephen Hawking earlier this year, it was pitched as “a series of physical and mental challenges” that would show its contestants “how to think like a genius.”

That tingled my The Mole fibers, and I was imagining an even smarter version of that series. The start of the first episode, which debuts tonight at 9 p.m. ET on PBS and is followed by the second of six episodes, had me thinking the same thing. (Update: The show is now available to watch free with Amazon Prime, or for download on iTunes.)

In Times Square, three people were invited to a party by Stephen Hawking, but were given only three numbers, nothing else, to find their way there. How awesome! It was set this up as having the potential of The Mole’s tricky challenges.

Alas, I was quickly disappointed by the simplicity of the task and how quickly the contestants figured it out. Many of the subsequent tasks were similar, and didn’t exactly require genius to complete.

But by the time the three contestants actually time traveled at the end of the first episode, I was sold. Genius By Stephen Hawking a beguilingly smart series that makes complex ideas accessible and entertaining, and is a big win for PBS.

Genius by Stephen Hawking is less of a competition and more of a series of illustrations and demonstrations of complex ideas. Stephen Hawking is very present, narrating each of the tasks, and also providing historical context. All of that’s presented in a well-edited package, with helpful on-screen graphics and visually striking footage.

In a press release, PBS said that in each episode, “a different group of ordinary people will be challenged to think like the greatest scientific minds in history in order to solve some of humanity’s most enduring questions.”

Of course, they’re not actually solving anything, they’re just re-solving problems with their demonstrations. PBS’ press release admits this: “Each episode features three people with curious minds who must use their own intellect to learn what humanity’s most notable thinkers have discovered about the greatest scientific mysteries over the centuries.”

The contestants don’t have that much to figure out as they go through each task—and I’m not always sure they’re really solving anything so much as just taking a series of steps.

But what they do in the first episode actually helped me understand time travel in a way I never have before. I could never quite wrap my head around the Star Trek: The Next Generation time travel episodes, and now I have a much clearer understanding.

I’m looking forward to what Stephen Hawking and his volunteers teach me next.