What to make of John Adams, the highly-promoted mini-series now unwinding through the late 18th century on HBO? The formula of the weekly episode is well-set and sadly telegraphed: Adams unsure and agitated as portrayed by a bewigged Paul Giamatti, some heinous medical procedure filmed in gruesome detail, tension in the long-suffering but strong Adams marriage, and lush and gorgeous locations and set design.
The medical tic particularly detracts. Yes, we know all about smallpox and the gory separation of limbs from wounded bodies in naval settings – we learned at the literary knee of Stephen Maturin, after all. What made John Adams a great man, always my favorite Founding Father, wasn’t his exposure to nasty colonial doctoring. His greatness originated in the rare combination of political philosophy with political tactics, wrapped into a sturdy bulldog temperament. Giamatti’s Adams occasionally captures this quality, most memorably during the too-short portrayal of negotiations of the Second Continental Congress. But too often, this Adams looks like a second-tier player, a utility infielder among revolutionaries like Washington, Franklin, and even Jefferson.
In reality, Adams was the indispensable political engine; Washington regarded him as the Revolution’s most able political actor and for good reason. The latest episode portrays virtually his entire European diplomatic forays (there were two in the 1770s, the series conflates them) as personal failures, massive wastes of time. In fact, as David McCullough’s fine biography – upon the which the HBO series is based – conveyed, Adams provided a valuable counterbalance to Franklin’s more easy-going diplomacy. While Franklin undoubtedly knew the French, Adams pushed for the fledgling republic’s immediate needs; without Adams’ urgency, Franklin’s success was hardly guaranteed.
In any event, Franklin is an impressive presence in the series, thanks to the performance of Tom Wilkinson, who really owns the character. Laura Linney as Abigail Adams is equally strong, clearly the dominant actor in Braintree; she brings home life in 1770s Massachusetts to life, and allows the occasional flavor of early American feminism to slip through the farming and cooking and cleaning and sewing. Washington remains a ghostly enigma, even played under heavy makeup by David Morse. And I’m looking for more from Stephen Dillane’s Jefferson, particularly as a political adversary later on – and an aged correspondent and close friend still further down the revolutionary road.
Did I mention the series is gorgeous? The sets, the design of the long shots, the locations, and the the costumes – top notch, sometimes stunning. Yet, three episodes in I still prefer the John Adams of George Grizzard in the mid-70s PBS mini-series The Adams Chronicles, or the fiery (and more musical) Adams brought to life by William Daniels in the 1972 film version of the Broadway musical 1776 (“for God’s sake John, sit down!) – two more memorable portrayals.
Still, I’m along for the longer ride – next up is Adams’ appointment as the new U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James. I can’t wait to hear what he says to King George.