HBO tackles a daring subject tonight, one that makes TV audiences gasp and recoil -- The Revolutionary War. Is there anything that strikes more fear into the hearts of viewers than a tri-corner hat and tight white leggings on men? I don't think so, but HBO is giving it the old college-history-class try with their multi-part adaptation of David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of early American patriot John Adams.
Even if history isn't your cup of tea, you can't deny that HBO has really stacked the deck here, offering two of the very most interesting actors working today as the leads: Paul Giamatti plays John Adams, and Laura Linney is his wife Abigail. Who doesn't like either of these terrifically talented and understated actors? Both seem the very essence of honesty in their work, and that's a touch that could help bring two iconic historical figures to life. Let's hope so, anyway. The supporting cast is equally as good, featuring Danny Huston (and if you haven't caught his recent exciting monster movie 30 Days of Night I highly recommend it!), Stephen Dillane, David Morse, Sarah Polley, Tom Wilkinson (remember him in the wonderful HBO movie Normal where he had a sex-change?), and Rufus Sewell, he of the slightly-crazy eye and slick intelligence.
I haven't read anything negative about the show at all, and I especially liked The New Yorker's fascinating review written by Harvard history professor Jill Lepore. It's obviously a given that John Adams is well-made television -- HBO doesn't do anything less -- so the real issue is whether or not this is well-made history. Well worth a reading of her review (which thankfully is available online to those of you who aren't TNY subscribers, though you might think about becoming one -- what a great magazine!) for the low-down on the real story behind the miniseries' characters.
I also recommend the review from Variety, because they have a distinctly different and practical point-of-view, namely, how will it play in Peoria? I share some of their fear that the subject matter itself is the special's worst enemy, but it's not always about ratings -- nor should it be --and watching something like John Adams will certainly do us all a lot of good.
In trying to think of an American Revolution TV show that worked, I recall that A & E's George Washington meets the Delaware River movie The Crossing starring Jeff Daniels as Gen. Washington was a terrific undertaking, and Barry Bostwick as Washington in a pair of movies back in the mid-1980s (so long ago, that's scary!) with Patty Duke as Martha also worked well, critically, at least. And of course there's 1776 for those of you who want your Founding Fathers singing a bit, too. Not to mention a rather disturbing little Revolutionary tale I saw last night, in fact, on the Masters of Horror series, entitled "The Washingtonians" about how George and his cronies were all cannibals. All righty, then.
So, take your medicine: watch John Adams and wonder what these early American minds would make of the current political scene in the United States. I have to confess I haven't figured out the scheduling of the seven parts of John Adams -- I only know for sure that Part 1 and Part 2 premiere tonight at 8pm, although I believe the next segment preems next Sunday and so on through subsequent Sundays. That's what I call a slow burn....