Saturday, June 5, 2010

Current Craving: American History, "John Adams"

Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney

Although I probably watch less than .001% of the television shows most Americans watch, I hereby declare that the John Adams (2008) HBO miniseries is the best TV miniseries ever made except for, possibly, Brideshead Revisited (1981). I've seen many of the miniseries on the IMBD Top 50 List, including Elizabeth R, and most of the Masterpiece Classic series of the past decade (Brideshead came in at #10 on that list). I can only assume that John Adams is at #15 because most voters don't have HBO. (And I will never understand why I Claudius, #3, gets any raves. The acting was so wooden that little toothpicks popped out of my B&W portable back in 1976.) Now, I love The Godfather Epic — which is at #2 because it was presented as a TV miniseries — more than anything. But I don't think that splicing together two major motion pictures together with extra footage really counts as a miniseries. (I also don't think Godfather 3 stacks up to the other two, so I try to only watch The Epic.)

Anyway, John Adams beats them all. It's our history, come to life. For basic historical accuracy and a dramatic story, there's David McCullough. (I've met him a few times and he is the friendliest, most down-to-earth Pulitzer prize–winning author you can imagine — exactly as he appears on TV.) For a satisfyingly authentic set and costumes, there's Gemma Jackson, who chose Colonial Williamsburg for some of the locations. You couldn't ask for, or build, a more authentic set — and Gemma made sure that it and all of the actors and extras were always authentically grungy). Yet no one had filmed anything at Williamsburg since the '50s. Tom Hanks produced it (and spent piles of money, which no PBS series can ever hope to match, extremely well). And the actors — Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Stephen Dillane, David Morse, Tom Wilkinson — are all extraordinary.

The casting is amazing. The characters are so real and so well-rounded, that I'll never be able to think of American history again without imagining these actors as the characters they played.

Here's Tom Wilkinson as Ben Franklin, wearing a coonskin cap in France, because everyone at court expected American colonists to be part savage:

Here's George Washington, played by David Morse. When you see George portrayed with the power of early Marlon Brando with the charisma and statesmanship of Bill Clinton, you'll never think of him the same way again. He also reminded me of Possum; when you see these photos, I hope you'll agree:

But John Adams is worth watching for one character alone: British actor Stephen Dillane, whose handsome, brooding, brilliant Thomas Jefferson steals every scene. Who ever thought American history — factually presented, without pancake makeup, or made-up romance, or even a hint of Hollywood glamour — could steam up the TV screen? And again, I present Possum for comparison:

He's not wearing his tricorne because he's so vain about his 1.5 ears.


  1. I'm a big fan of the John Adams miniseries -- and completely agree about 'Jefferson' -- but beg to differ on the 'factually presented' part -- see for starters......

  2. You're so right, Karen. This is the last time i'm letting Possum dictate my blog posts without doing some fact-checking first.

    It did seem that the farm "moved around" a lot, and those charming kids never seemed to age... but I guess I can understand a certain amount of dramatic license — this is a miniseries and not a documentary. And the amount of effort that went into the sets and costumes continues to impress me.

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting!


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