John Adams is the sort of undertaking that we keep hearing has disappeared from television: a historical miniseries with a price tag of an estimated $100 million, with a pair of certifiable independent film stars at its core. It could be the key happening of 2008 for HBO, which lost its most prestigious series last week when The Wire closed up shop and keeps having to defend its continuing relevance, and reputation for innovation and high quality.
Adams has always had a limited historical profile, no doubt because he fell between the certifiably titanic figures of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in the presidential line. Adams even looked different from those two men, who were both tall, handsome, and aristocratic where he was portly. He was the first president to not win a second term (his son John Quincy was the second), and he doesn't appear on any currency. These are factors which have contributed to the sense that Adams just wasn't very interesting. For the first 225 years of American history, his biggest pop culture splash came in the Broadway musical and film 1776, where William Daniels played him as a stuffed shirt who was continually tweaked by the lovable rogue Benjamin Franklin.
That all changed in a major way when David McCullough published his Adams biography in 2001, a Pulitzer Prize-winning work which made a convincing case that Adams had not only been underrated, but was in his own way completely indispensable to the early days of the Republic. It didn't hurt that the proto-feminism of wife Abigail made her an especially compelling figure for contemporary audiences. The relatively unfamiliar Adams story provided a new way to examine the otherwise well-covered story of the founding of America. When Tom Hanks got a hold of the rights to McCullough's book, it was obvious HBO would have the inside track to the project given his earlier miniseries for the network, From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers.
If there's any resistance to John Adams, it might come from the casting of Paul Giamatti in the title role. He was terrific in Sideways and American Splendor, but always seems very contemporary. What's more, we're used to seeing him as frustrated or beaten down on screen, not as a leader. Is he a big enough personality to carry a miniseries of this length? Two Oscar nominees play key roles: Laura Linney as Abigail, who kept a household going while Adams spent years at a time away from her and famously asked him to "remember the ladies" when considering independence, and Tom Wilkinson as Franklin, who had the common touch Adams lacked but was a key colleague during the revolutionary years.
Like all of the Founding Fathers who went on to the highest office, Adams's time as president was one of the less interesting things about his public life, and both McCullough's book and the miniseries reflect this. The decision to rebel against Britain and then pursue independence was an amazingly radical break for a collection of lawyers and gentleman farmers, all of whom would have been hanged had the revolution failed. And in retirement, Adams forged a remarkable friendship with his greatest rival, Jefferson; the two men famously died on the same day.
The seven-part miniseries begins Sunday with two episodes that culminate in the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That this happens only one-third of the way through John Adams should indicate that it was an eventful life indeed. Let us hope HBO did him proud.