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Ye Olde Cliffe-Hanger

In these times FRAUGHT with Peril and CONFUSION, it is imperative for a Free and Principled people to consider with all SOBRIETY the following troubling circumstances which were RAISED by the penultimate episode of the tele-visual gazette of John Adams:

  • Will President Adams finally find peace and happiness amidst family at his farm, Peacefield?
  • Can any creature in Heaven or on Earth stand in the way of Alexander Hamilton's thirst for power and fab military regalia?
  • Will President Adams be able to repair his long friendship with Thomas Jefferson, or will Jefferson's commitment to his role as the first Emo-American prevent reconciliation between the two?
  • No one talks about Ben Franklin on the show anymore. Is he, like, dead?

Ha ha, kidding. We can rest assured that all those fancy buttons and ribbons Hamilton was obsessing over in "Unnecessary War" won't stop a lead salad courtesy of Aaron Burr. But - SPOILER ALERT! - HBO has leaked the final scene of John Adams to yours truly, and I've included it below. It will intrigue some, infuriate others, but you can bet everyone will be talking about at the water cooler tomorrow!

As for the series, I'm trying to figure out why, given such a stellar cast, tremendous production values and impeccable source material, I haven't really enjoyed it as much as I thought I would. I feel like a traitor to my country, and given the fact President Adams just signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in Episode 6, I could be in deep shit right now.

It's not the actors, especially leads Paul Giamatti as the titular subject and the great Laura Linney as his wife Abigail. Both have done fine work at bringing the humanity of these famed figures to the surface. I've especially enjoyed Giamatti's performance. Adams was never one of America's most beloved Founding Fathers - his prickliness and relatively mundane lifestyle prevented him from enjoying the approbations given to Franklin, Jefferson and George Washington. Giamatti has done a great job of showing Adams' virtues and humor without sanding over the edges that made our second president such a difficult person to like. Indeed, he's shown why it was so important for our fledgling country to have a New England hard-ass riding herd on our flightier and more furious forebears.

The rest of the cast has been similarly good, though I grew borderline annoyed with the pounds of ham that Tom Wilkinson hurled around as Ben Franklin. I know Ben was a pretty colorful character and prone to the theatrical, but I'm fairly certain his every waking minute wasn't filled winking and uttering aphorisms and banging elderly French duchesses. Of course, I can't totally blame Wilkinson if the writers saw his Franklin as one of their few opportunities to goose the proceedings. The scenes in which he tried to play referee between the acerbic Adams and the gloomy Jefferson in Paris were some of the best of the series.

(Incidentally, the series has done a great job in showing how vicious politicians have always been with each other down through the ages. Don't let anyone tell you that our current atmosphere is somehow uniquely poisonous. Our rhetoric may be more crass, but Hillary/Obama has nothing on Hamilton/Adams.)

The sets and costumes have been fantastic, and the production crew has done a tremendous job of showing the vast differences between the sumptuous palaces and gentry of Europe and the squalid eastern seaboard of the young United States. The makeup department has done a good job overall of showing the various characters age, to say nothing of that department's work on the French aristocracy (shudder).

Narratively, there's been a few problems in making the transition from David McCullough's terrific book to the screen. Now, perhaps it's a (mal)function of my MTV-generation brain, but it's been almost impossible to keep up with a number of players throughout the series, outside of obvious bigwigs like Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Hamilton. Short of putting their names, He Hate Me-style, across jacket backs, I'm not sure what they could have done. Especially in the first few episodes, the flood of bewigged Benjamins and Sams and Johns and Thomases was pretty overwhelming.

Similarly, showing the passage of time has been problematic. Years will pass unmentioned within episodes, and characters vitally important to the story in a previous episode are long gone by the following, usually with no mention of any further deeds or manner of expiration on their part. As with the huge cast of characters, I'm not sure how you'd be able to account for any confusion here without either totally dumbing down the show, or - at the other extreme - making each episode three hours long. Still, an occasional indication of year and place at the bottom of the screen would have been helpful.

I think HBO would have been better served going with another great McCullough book, 1776. It would have been much more simple to trace the passage of a single year, and there would have been ample opportunity to show both the progress of politics and statesmanship as well as stage a bunch of kick-ass battle scenes.

And they wouldn't have had to resort to the one element of John Adams that ended up irritating the hell out of me: The gratuitous employment of skewed camera angles at every possible juncture. Now, I understand that straight shots of people sitting around and discussing matters of politics, philosophy and law doesn't exactly make for thrilling visuals. And I also get that skewed angles can be employed to convey inner turmoil. Some of that is to be allowed and commended. But I found myself at numerous times craning my neck trying to compensate for the incessantly tilted camera. For God's sake, this isn't early Sam Raimi. STOP IT!

The Signing of the Declaration of Independence. HBO-style.

So, to sum up: Great acting, great design, great subject matter, bewildering handling of character and time, and that unnecessarily warped camerawork. In all, an example of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. Very much worth watching; just not quite up to the standards set by the previous HBO/Play-Tone collaboration, Band of Brothers.