Rehabilitation of a Grump? HBO’s John Adams

by Bryan & Heather

Our HBO Max subscription has brought with it the opportunity to explore all kinds of historical shows we never caught when they were airing, but none have been as expected as HBO’s miniseries John Adams. Bryan had heard about it from Francis for years, and with the conclusion of Outlander’s sixth season (now set firmly in the Revolutionary Era) and July 4, 2022 fast approaching, we could think of no better time to finally give it a shot.

As promised, we were treated to a sumptuous Revolutionary America/Early Republic period piece, with Paul Giamotti bringing to life the titular Founding Father and Second President of the United States. While running for seven approximately 1-hour episodes, John Adams is surprisingly focused in ways that many period pieces and even academic works of history are not; based on the David McCullough biography of the same title, the show zeroes in on Adams and only Adams, sticking to his story even when other events elsewhere would arguable be more interesting. And what a story it is, from Massachusetts country lawyer to architect of independence to exiled diplomat to embattled chief executive, Adams’ story exudes veracity in ways few period pieces every achieve. The material culture is exquisite (though sometimes a bit modern-looking in material) right down to characters’ teeth noticeably declining as the series moves on. Even more notable, the social milieu of the age is brilliantly captured through things such as Adams’ parenting style being much less warm than modern audiences would expect, the New England Adams’ visible discomfort seeing ubiquitous slave labor in the South, and most importantly the treatment of these titanic figures of American myth as normal men, not larger-than-life heroes. Even as the series brings more attention to one of the traditionally least-discussed Founders, it also (mostly) avoids being completely apologist for Adams, portraying him accurately as an intelligent yet cantankerous, prideful, even hubristic man that was not easy to get along with even if you were a friend. At times it may even stray into too intelligent a portrayal–we noted numerous times Adams seemed to look straight at the audience and pronounce prophecy-as-musings, precisely laying out the future history of the United States and almost shouting at the audience to pay attention to the relevancy of the material they’re watching.

Ironically, however, it is this laser focus on Adams that also results in our biggest critiques of the miniseries. Sometimes those more interesting events are important to contextualize what is happening to Adams, and combined with the show’s penchant for unannounced and undefined time jumps, audiences can quickly become unmoored from history. Even events that should absolutely have been included like the War of 1812 (his oldest son was chief negotiator of the peace treaty and his own party was heavily involved) and the Louisiana Purchase (Adams chews out Hamilton in the show for suggesting America should extend to the Mississippi) are conspicuously absent from its final episode. Its veracity is also partially the show’s undoing as a storytelling medium; like so many films and shows that hew too close to historical sources, John Adams gets caught in limbo between documentary and fiction, lacking the convincing storytelling structure that would make it a truly engaging series precisely because pure, unadapted history does not supply such mechanisms.

In the final accounting, John Adams is still very much a worthwhile watch for students of history and the interested public alike, but we recommend going in with open eyes. Its front half, especially its fantastic pilot episode, are very solid depictions of the American Revolution, yet the further you go, the more you may need some written supplementary material to orient you to what’s going on. It may not be The Patriot, but as historical fiction goes, you can do much worse for an exploration of such an overlooked yet pivotal figure in our country’s early history.

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