Founding-Father TV

In John Adams, Benjamin Franklin steals the show.

Paul Giamatti and David Morse in John Adams

If John Adams (HBO, Sundays at 8 p.m. ET) doesn’t clean up at the Emmys, then I don’t know what could. This has nothing to do with the seven-part miniseries being marked by any overwhelming excellence—in fact, it is frequently merely decent and occasionally plain dull—but because it has all the hallmarks of a prestige project, and the television industry is never more craven than when grasping for the mantle of Culture.

Admire, as if by the glow of a Waterford candelabra, the series’ literary pedigree (with the screenplay based on David McCollough’s biography), its classy stars (with Paul Giamatti in the lead and Laura Linney as his bride), its stately art direction and rich costumes (with many marvelous tricorns and wainscoting to die for). Further, for the Hollywood elite to deny prizes to a project with these themes—the birth of the nation, the work of a patriot, the strength of a marriage—would be as unthinkable as a Democrat trying to look soft on crime. So, congratulations, HBO, on your great success. Just don’t take it as a license to produce a 12-hour drama about the Stamp Act.

The Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence, the office of the minister plenipotentiary—you know the score, or at least you better, as John Adams is at least smart enough not to hold your hand too often. That is, while there’s a fair bit of textbook-ready dialogue—”An alliance with France and Spain is essential!”—history does not march so much as it ducks and weaves through bits of courtroom drama and court intrigue, macho naval battles and the beruffled ladies of Paris. Sometimes the show feels like an eighth-grade field trip to Independence Hall or maybe a citizenship test, and sometimes it weirdly dovetails with contemporary political discourse as in one scene that doesn’t feature even a single Founding Father. On a night when Adams is out of town for work, the camera checks in on the bedrooms of his children back in Massachusetts. The brood snoozes angelically. One moppet clutches his teddy bear. And then the family awakes to blasts in the distance: It’s 3 a.m., and the British have opened fire on Bunker Hill. Who do you trust to answer the letter delivered by mounted courier to the Second Continental Congress?

John Adams’ kids, in fact, are so crucial to John Adams that it can play like a parable on the tensions faced by a workaholic dad. “I hate Congress,” stews one of the boys as his father rides into a snowstorm and off to build a country. But Adams also embraces his brood and delivers homilies about courage in a way that can only enhance the eventual DVD set’s inevitable status as a Father’s Day gift. Meanwhile, Abigail Adams looks like the ultimate helpmeet as she supports her hubby by opposing him and fusses about whether his breeches are fancy enough for Philadelphia.

But what about the main man? How did his story make it to your cable box before, say, a zippy adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Burr? The fact that John Adams is a fascinating historical figure in no way qualifies him to be an interesting dramatic character, but Giamatti does what he can, coming on with his hound-dog eyes and fox-terrier tenacity. He tends to speak in hushed growls and intense mutters. For a while I thought this was a trick to force close attention. It is a great relief when, an hour into the first episode, another character shouts at him to talk louder.

We must wait for Tom Wilkinson to pump up the volume when he stumps to the fore as Ben Franklin, the best thing on screen here. He’s got a lightning-bolt crackle, a weighty force, and a talent for fun, despite the many Poor Richard-isms that have been shoehorned into his dialogue. (“Go gently,” he tells a simmering Adams. “You are a guest in Philadelphia. Fish and guests stink after three days.”) He enters making quips about testicles and throughout, even when at his most philosophical, has the aspect of the grandpa who might at any moment ask you to pull his finger. This Franklin enlivens the painterly prettiness and dutiful solemnity of John Adams with a healthy sense of the vulgar, as in the vernacular, as in the native voice of America.