I just finished watching the fifth installment of the HBO miniseries – based on the book by David McCullough – John Adams – a weekly event which I’ve come to anticipate with such fervor that my favorite and most eagerly awaited ceremony has become my Monday ritual of the past five weeks of jumping into bed and under my comforter with refreshments on my nightstand and my laptop perched on my thighs with Firefox open to Wikipedia while I fire up HBO On Demand. I’ve even started referring to the miniseries by a pet-name: The John Adams Show.
HBO and HBO Films have been long standing favorites in my heart, going back to the days where Fraggle Rock was the only show featuring puppets which I could tolerate. My favorite television show of all time was Six Feet Under and I, like the rest of the world, loved The Sopranos. Deadwood should still be produced. Big Love is my current favorite drama. Angels in America could not have been more faithfully and beautifully adapted. They’ve also either produced or distributed some of my favorite flicks such as Sometimes in April, The Girl in the Café, Something the Lord Made, Elephant, Longford, Starter For 10, Wit, Maria Full of Grace, Yesterday, 61*, And Staring Pancho Villa as Himself, American Splendor and The Pentagon Wars. Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Kansas City Chiefs was my favorite show about the Kansas City Chiefs.
All of that was me admitting bias.
And with all of that bias admitted, let me now proclaim, for what it’s worth, that John Adams aka The John Adams Show is the absolute best television event to ever rock the satellite.
We all learned our few paragraphs about the American Revolution and I’m pretty sure most of us come out of it with the same picture. Something like George Washington attending a tea party with some guys in red-coats while crossing a river and signing the Declaration of Independence. If there’s a second picture from the era that pops up it might have Ben Franklin flying a kite with his house keys dangling off. Aside from those very wise folks who care deeply and greatly about all things historic and write books that are only read by each other, most folks have never really taken the time to think of these names – these faces on our currency – as fully fleshed out characters. For me and my lack of complexity, watching a representation of what their day to day lives may have been like is completely fascinating.
The truth is, nerd that I am, I was already a big fan of the life of Mr. Adams – specifically, the relationship that he and his wife Abigail shared. We know of this magnificent relationship not only through their preserved letters, but also through historic popular media where she was often as criticized for her politicking as her husband. Both were also (although, not the most outspoken) abolitionists who never owned slaves which makes them a rare and interesting case.
Now, I’ve already written studies on the characters solely as they have been presented so far in this miniseries. I won’t bore you with those as I did this for my own amusement but I’m announcing it here in hopes that my interest inspires someone else to watch John Adams, aka The John Adams Show (nope, I’m not going to stop calling it that). I’m not looking to shove American History down anyones throat, here, either. I’m in it for the entertainment value as much as anyone else. I just want to share this because it’s really come to mean so much to me.
There are a few moments and a few points that I’d like to highlight here, though, because I feel that they added a depth of understanding either to the characterizations or period setting – and just made the experience much more enjoyable.
The first thing I noticed about this piece is the costuming, in particular, wigs that actually come off of the heads of the wearers. This is something that, I’m ashamed to say, I simply never thought about. In my wallet and on statues and portraits everywhere I see men with curls on the side of their heads and bows tying their hair at the napes of their necks and I know these are wigs – but I never imagined these being removed. This may seem like a small point but it only further highlights how I’d never bothered to attempt envisioning what day to day life must have been like for people during this particular period. Also I’d never seen this era represented in such a way – dirt and dust all over hair and clothing. Common sense or a little bit of research tells us that it was simply not possible to maintain even the lowest level of cleanliness that we now perceive as minimal. It seems silly but I was amazed to be seeing this on television – something that makes so much sense – and seeing it depicted with these larger than life, untouchable men such as John Adams and America’s forefathers as our example. The act of beating the dust out of a wig was placed so perfectly in one scene that I saw it and realized immediately that this was not a big deal to the character. This is just what he did. He came home from work everyday and took off his wig and shook it out.
The unbelievable enormity and complexity of the set was also something that really drew me and helped me better understand the characters and their lives. We’re outside on colonial streets where it’s completely black at night and we’re inside dark and dusty homes and courthouses. We’re at the Adams’ sprawling farm which was just outside of what is now one of the largest cities in the country and from which you could see Boston Harbor. We’re in Philadelphia and then Paris – we’re in the woods and we’re in King George III’s reception chamber. During the busy daytime street scenes there are sheep being herded straight through the city and people hand pumping water from wells and no one bats an eyelash. This, like the dusty wig, is normal day-to-day life. The best usage of set, though, is displaying the drastic differences between life in well established European cities with healthy economies like Paris and London and life across the pond in warring colonial America. This was also achieved with elaborate costuming and makeup but the sets really stole the show. Paris has huge, clean buildings with art on the walls and colorful fabrics, green gardens and fountains whereas Americans not only don’t yet have time for these things – there’s no foreign trade and most must farm full time to live – but they have yet to live in real peace and haven’t established such a developed social culture of their own with their own cohesive style. This is a far cry from the educational videos we watched in high school that took place in one flag-covered room and in which everyone used feathers for pens.
While John Adams is, without a doubt, the most fleshed-out character (hello, it is The John Adams Show after all!) we get to see fascinating personifications of the seemingly meek but forward thinking and scholarly revolutionary Thomas Jefferson, the jovial, wise and somewhat fillandering Benjamin Franklin, the quiet but stern George Washington as well as the father-pleasing John Quincy and the entire Adams family.
A scene that drew me in as much as it grossed me out took place during one of many where Abigail was on her own with the children running the Adams’ farm while John was gathered with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. She decides to have the family inoculated against smallpox – which seems to have been as scary and as risky of a prospect as actually catching the disease. The doctor pulls up and on the back of his cart is a young boy with sores all over his body clutching a cross. The gentlemen takes a knife and cuts a puss filled blister from the child and puts it on a plate. He then delivers the puss into Abigail and the children one-by-one by cutting a long slice into each of their arms and pushing some of it into this fold with what looked like a wooden stick. This may seem gratuitous – but it made sense to me. It was the perfect device to illustrate what it was like for Abigail to be without John and to show the types of decisions she would be faced with to best protect her family.
One of my favorite scenes so far took place in Paris where Abigail, John and TJ were watching what I assume was the meant to be the first free-flight of the Montgolfier brother’s hot air balloon which would have been piloted by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon and Giroud de Villette. This scene is used as a very beautifully shot and intriguing plot device to help establish the viewers understanding of the day and age we’re witnessing as well as assist in leading to a realization of the well documented difference in thinking between the two men. We know that these men were friends, united by a cause and that later in life they would be political adversaries and still later the best of confidants – but to see it played out before my eyes like this brought a better understanding into my simple-minded skull. As the balloon lifts slowly into the sky guided by men with ropes, Mr. Adam’s looks up and states “it will never fly” to which Abigail giggles and retorts “it has flown, John! Many times!” John continues looking up and quips about how it’s simply been pulled up and down on a rope. “Let’s see what happens when the rope is released.” Mr. Jefferson looks to his right and says, “Your husband’s admirable caution somehow blinds him to unanticipated possibilities, Mrs. Adams. This is one of them.” I can’t help but drop tears as these three – and the entire crowd around them – watch, jaws agape, as the ropes are dropped and the balloon sores into the sky.
John Adams: (staring into the sky, hand shielding his eyes from the sun) Well … I … stand corrected.
Thomas Jefferson: So, our umbilical cord to mother earth has been severed for the first time in history. Mankind floats upon a limitless plane of air.
John Adams: Hot air.
What an amazing thing to witness. What a thrilling time it must have been to be alive. When new discoveries were something you saw lifting into the air right in front of you instead of something you hear has happened in a laboratory.
This miniseries is full of beautiful scenes like this. Scenes where brilliant and brave, yet flawed and human revolutionaries - who were intellectuals, not brutes – sit around and discuss human nature and the slow and painful formation of a new nation. A nation which they only had an idea of and nothing solid to prove that it would work.
There’s another scene that stands out in my mind as depicting the differences of ideas between JA and TJ and shows how, in two men, we already had a two party system at work with what would become the Federalists and the Republicans. While sitting in Paris discussing the limits (or lack thereof) on powers a new federal government should be granted, Mr. Adams, Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Franklin discuss the nature of humanity and the “contradictions” inherent in all men:
Thomas Jefferson: You have a disconcerting lack of faith in your fellow man, Mr. A, and in yourself, if I may say.
John Adams: Yes, and you display a dangerous excess of faith in your fellow man, Mr. Jefferson.
How daunting – and frightening, at times – it must have been to be these men.
More of my favorite scenes:
- The first private reading and the retooling of the Declaration of Independence.
- Mr. Adams meeting King George III – the man who used to govern the colonies and whose empire John Adams assisted, through his tireless politicking, in tearing apart (and who must have already started to lose his mind a bit at this point) face to face for the first time.
- The Adams family having their first meal together in over five years when Abigail and John return from Europe.
- John Adams finding out by post, while at home at his farm with his wife, that he has been elected the first Vice President of the United States.
- George Washington towering over John Adams – exaggerated by camera angles – every single time it happens. What a simple yet powerful way to depict that relationship. Especially the scenes where GW is about to be sworn in and the one where he congratulates Mr. Adams on his election to the Presidency.
So, I’m in love with The John Adams Show, dba John Adams. Not only are the costuming, sets and dialogue amazing but the acting (or perhaps, more so, the editing) is utterly flawless. I never see Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Laura Linney or David Morse even once as themselves and not their characters. I never see a glimpse of 21st century life and every word spoken is in a vernacular that I buy as being completely true to the period – but there is nothing boring about this period piece or the men whose lives it chronicles and while I’ve always known how the story ends I can’t help but devour every second, hang on every word, cringe at every tense moment and amaze at every new discovery. This is the best thing to happen on television, let alone HBO, since the final episode of The Sopranos opened up with the song Denise by Randy and the Rainbows.
Was that more bias?