As hard as I am on television, it’s only fair to admit when a program comes along that captures my attention.
I came to the HBO miniseries John Adams with a jaundiced eye. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book by David McCullough, as all his books, was fascinating, no small praise from a committed fiction reader; but I had the sinking feeling that McCullough had sold out to the blood-bath Sopranos crowd.
Fortunately, the depth and clarity readers have come to expect from McCullough’s books have not been omitted from the series for the sake of simplicity. But you don’t have to understand a word of it to understand that Adams, for all his arrogance and ego, was painfully aware of and embarrassed by his shortcomings. It would have been easy to play the part with boorish puffery, but actor Paul Giamatti gives a performance so delicately nuanced that you almost feel Adams’ discomfort. The scene where, as the newly-appointed minister (ambassador) to the Court of St. James, he has an audience with King George III is almost painful to watch as Adams, following the protocol he had been rehearsing, approaches an empty throne flanked by a silent man in uniform. The king? An aide? He stumbles and fumbles and we’re only offered relief when the man in uniform finally replies as the king.
Equally elegant is Laura Linney‘s Abigail Adams. By all accounts, Abigail was bright, opinionated and, to her husband, outspoken. She ran their entire farm by herself during her husband’s long absences while encouraging and advising him by mail. But she was also very much a woman of her time and her geography and Linney’s Abigail reconciles the second first lady’s personality and circumstance without making her a modern extrovert.
As for the rest of the cast, Tom Wilkinson pulls Benjamin Franklin off the hundred dollar bill and gives him credibility and life; Stephen Dillane delivers a brilliant, soft-spoken Thomas Jefferson; and David Morse portrays a very tall George Washington.
If there is one annoying thing of which historical miniseries are guilty, it’s sentimentality.
I hate it when sweeping generalizations are assumed about the climate of the times or things show up that aren’t supposed to be around yet. It’s always bothered me that in the movie A Beautiful Mind – a really great movie, incidentally — hard plastic orange Tupperware shows up a good ten years before it’s supposed to be there. Can’t get past it. Bugs me no end every time I watch the movie. When I see that orange Tupperware I want to scream, “Put back my Aunt Theresa’s applesauce bowl!”
But I really hate it when when people and things are too damn clean and pretty. The 18th Century reality was that most people did not bathe everyday and clothes did not wash up brilliantly white and few women wore makeup and those that did were usually trying to cover up smallpox scars — unsuccessfully.
There are no gleaming white teeth, flawlessly clear complexions, or machine-tailored gowns in John Adams. After having caught a brief part of 2006′s Marie Antoinette with all the pretty, ingénues fluttering about giggling, I tend more to believe director Tom Hooper’s rendition of the Court at Versailles as the suffocating, arrogant freak show it probably was – certainly to a plain-living New England lawyer.
Watch the lighting in John Adams. The indoor scenes are shadowy and dark for the simple reason that people didn’t use the lamps during the day; they relied on daylight from windows. Scenes in France and the Netherlands are lit like the paintings of the day – and what better way to know the colors and look of an era.
Most of all, the series doesn’t shy from dealing with the complex issues facing these men trying to justly redefine the world’s view of government and hammering out how far their influence should reach. And if these very brief discussions seem tedious to viewers used to car crashes and screaming arguments every segment, there is always Franklin’s debauchery to ponder.
Three more episodes remain of the series, which I’m sure will be repeated. New episodes air Sunday evenings on HBO. You won’t be disappointed.
Besides, Oprah’s gotten enough attention.