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    John Adams

    In spite of OTF hate figure Tom Hanks being executive-producer I'm rather enjoying this series. It's a bit Masterpiece Theatreish but, possibly because almost every other film or TV series about the American Revolution I've seen has been drowned by star-spangled myth and sentimentality it comes off as very down-to-earth. Not that this production is entirely free of those qualities but for the most part the acting and art direction keep it above water. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney (who seems to be everywhere at the moment) are excellent as John and Abigail and Tom Wilkinson fleshes out Ben Franklin wonderfully. The screenplay too, focusses on the politics and legalities of the revolution rather than the military aspect or at least it has so far. Last week dealt mainly with the arm-twisting and cajoling that led to Congress approving the Declaration of Independence. After all the rage and tears the moment shared by the delegates after it had been passed was brilliant. No cheers, backslapping or posturing just a communal, silent "Oh fuck, what have we done!"

    #2
    John Adams

    The New Yorker criticized it for being overly hagiographical in favor of Adams, but I guess that comes from the source material (the book it's mostly based on).

    I don't have HBO anymore, so I haven't seen a full episode--watched a bit at my parents' house, the tar-and-feathering scene from one of the first episodes. Very disturbing--the only other representations about tarring and feathering that I've seen are political cartoons from the times that get used in US textbooks, usually showing the crowd smiling, and the worst that it comes across in there would be an annoyance from getting the feathers off. This showed it to be close to a lynching, with the crowd crying for blood and joyous when the burning hot tar was slathered on the victim's chest.

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      #3
      John Adams

      That scene was pretty powerful. In a similar vein (ouch!) Abigail's insistence on experimenting with innoculation to protect her children and herself from the smallpox epidemic sweeping Boston was teeth-clenching too. The slicing and macerating of pustules from a dying man to use as vaccine was, well, not lingered over exactly but certainly up to CSI standard.

      I don't know enough about Adams to tell if it's hagiography. Criticisms of him tend to be put in his own mouth (disliked by the rest of Congress, obnoxious, arrogant,) which has the knock-on effect of making him seem self-aware. According to the program, it was partially this lack of popularity which persuaded him to ask Jefferson to draft the Declaration document. Giamatti, has that look of constantly grinding his teeth. Here it conveys suppressed anger at having to deal with fools and feeble intellects constantly, to an extent it successfully plays against the warm-hearted family man and farmer. He and Linney are excellent together, when the kids are out of the way. Abigail is at least Adams's equal intellectually, and the only person he will comfortably accept advice from. The way each of their powerful personalities deal with that is one of the highlights so far.

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        #4
        John Adams

        I wrote a brilliant and inciteful review of the first three episodes of this series, which I watched at my parents house over the weekend, but then for some reason the New OTF ate it.

        To summarize: This show is outstanding. By far the most accurate portrayal of that piece of history I've ever seen on film. I've not read McCollaugh's John Adams, but I've read some of his other stuff and other sources on this period of our history. Enough to know that this really gets the costumes, make-up, sets, and overall vibe of the scenes right.

        And the casting is excellent. David Morse, usually just one of those "that guy who was in that movie"-type character actors is a perfect choice for George Washington. He looks like him and talks the way GW probably talked...

        Its not hagiographic. Its from Adams' perspective, I suppose, but it's not hagiographic. He was, after all, right about a lot of things. He opposed slavery. He was not a fan of the street gangs tarred and feathered customs officials (what a brutal scene that is in the show). He defended the soldiers in the so-called Boston Massacre.

        As the film progresses, we'll see more of his flaws. For example, he wasn't a very good diplomat. He was too impatient and direct. While those qualities served him well in other roles, he couldn't get along with the absurd fopps in the French court. Franklin was much better at going along to get along.

        And as president, there was the whole Sedition Act business which didn't exactly cover him in glory.

        Some of the "side characters" are also well played. Usually, Jefferson, Washington, etc, are portrayed as almost regal and always saying the perfect thing. In reality, Jefferson was a bit of a nut. A genius, to be sure, but a bit weird. He's portrayed that way. Hamilton hasn't apppeared in the show yet, but he will, played by Rufus Sewell (I think that's his name). A perfect choice. I haven't figured out who's playing Madison.

        Also, Jefferson and Adams really hated each other later on in their careers (before sort of patching it up before dying on the same day, July 4, 1816).

        Its hard to overestimate the impact of Abigail Adams. John Adams admitted that he was only at his best when she was advising him. She was a remarkable woman and their's was a remarkable relationship. Fortunately, their extensive correspondance are extant. I've only read some of their letters, but I think they're a national treasure. There were probably lots of amazing women who did amazing things behind the scenes in that era, but we don't know about them because their letters, if there were any don't survive.

        The scenes in the continental congress are great. It shows how history can be unkind to those who were on the wrong side. Dickinson, for example, clearly was a man of great character and conviction. He opposed independence for some pretty sound reasons, but he's largely forgotten now.

        It's also nice to see Caesar Rodney get a little air time. He's a hero in Delaware, but barely known elsewhere. From wiki:
        "Rodney served in the Continental Congress along with Thomas McKean and George Read from 1774 through 1776. Rodney was in Dover attending to Loyalist activity in Sussex County when he received word from Thomas McKean that he and George Read were deadlocked on the vote for independence. To break that deadlock, Rodney rode eighty miles through a thunderstorm on the night of July 1, 1776, dramatically arriving in Philadelphia 'in his boots and spurs' just as the voting was beginning. He voted with McKean and thereby caused Delaware to join eleven other states voting in favor of the Declaration of Independence. He also assured his own electoral defeat in Kent County for a seat in the upcoming Delaware Constitutional Convention and the new Delaware General Assembly."

        I could go on. This is my favorite historical period to read about because it is one of the few that really lives up to the hype. While the founding fathers were hardly Gods and were short-sighted about a whole lot of things, slavery being the most tragic, there was also a lot of brilliance and enlightenment in that group.

        And not just the politicians. Henry Knox, John Glover, Nathaniel Greene, etc, etc. If you're keen, look them up.

        I also love stuff about this time because I enjoy imagining what the Eastern United States were like before interstates, shopping malls, Wal-Marts, etc. When most of it was just open wilderness. In the valley where I grew up in Pennsylvania, there weren't even many native people around prior to the 19th century. It was wilderness with mountain lions and wood buffalo. It must have been a hard place to settle, but glorious too.

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          #5
          John Adams

          The portrayal of Jefferson looks as if it might be interesting. I liked the scene where Adams and Franklin are editing his Declaration with him slouched in a chair like the lead-singer of an Indie rock band. Franklin: "'Sacred' smacks too much of the pulpit. Shouldn't these truths be self-evident?" Jefferson: (shrug) < "like, whatever." >

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            #6
            John Adams

            I'm looking forward to seeing this at some point. Probably not until it hits DVD, but still.

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              #7
              John Adams

              Reed's passion for this period is almost foreign to me. Learning about this in California as a kid, the Revolutionary War seems like it took place in a different country. I imagine that schools take kids on field trips to places that were part of this history, and you might drive by someplace and think, "hey, this is where the Battle of...took place."

              Besides just the personal connection, being a student of California history, it's worth ruminating that California natives had their first serious contact with Europeans--there were explorers and traders that they came in contact with earlier, but I'm talking about Spanish missionaries--starting in 1769, just years before the Revolutionary War. For many, they probably first saw a white person after the Declaration of Independence. I'm sure to people on the East Coast, California will seem like a foreign place because of that.

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                #8
                John Adams

                It really is a different country. I find it sort of odd that Ontario is a different country than where I grew up, but California is supposedly the same country. With a few exceptions, it doesn't feel like that.

                it's worth ruminating that California natives had their first serious contact with Europeans--there were explorers and traders that they came in contact with earlier, but I'm talking about Spanish missionaries--starting in 1769, just years before the Revolutionary War. For many, they probably first saw a white person after the Declaration of Independence. I'm sure to people on the East Coast, California will seem like a foreign place because of that.
                Indeed, Spanish has been spoken on this continent at least as long as English, that's why its so absurd for these idiots to say "Goddamn it, this is America. I shouldn't have to press 1 for English...dey took urr Jobbbbbbssss!!!!!" Bilingualism, even tri-lingualism (if you count French) and quad-lingualism (if you count German) was part of at the formation of the US. It's not new.

                I imagine that schools take kids on field trips to places that were part of this history, and you might drive by someplace and think, "hey, this is where the Battle of...took place."
                That's basically true, although most of the major battlefields have been preserved by the National Park Service - Gettysburg, Yorktown, Valley Forge (not really a battlefield, but the same idea) etc, so one doesn't just randomly drive by.

                Gettysburg was a standard school trip in my youth and my family was big on historical sites so I've been to a number of Civil War and Revolutionary War sites - Antietam, Manasas, Appomatax Court House, Fort McHenry, Bunker Hill, George Washington's HQ in New Jersey somewhere I forget, Yorktown, Valley Forge, etc, etc. And, of course, I spent a lot of time in Williamsburg. I've had my fair share of "history comes alive!"

                What is considered "old" is, of course, different as one moves west. In Europe, Old is the middle ages or perhaps earlier. In the Eastern US, old is the 17th and 18th century. In the midwest, old is the 18th century. So does that mean that "old" in California means "pre-WWII?"

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                  #9
                  John Adams

                  It does in Western Canada. Our house, built in 1924, is a "Heritage Home," at least as far as realtors are concerned. There were a few trading posts until 1842 when Fort Victoria was built but nothing you could really call a European style settlement.

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                    #10
                    John Adams

                    What is considered "old" is, of course, different as one moves west. In Europe, Old is the middle ages or perhaps earlier. In the Eastern US, old is the 17th and 18th century. In the midwest, old is the 18th century. So does that mean that "old" in California means "pre-WWII?"
                    For the most part, yeah, simply because a lot of California wasn't developed until the 1940s and 1950s. I think San Francisco and the Bay Area might have a better sense of history than Southern California, because that was really the first part of the state to be developed, but I could be wrong. Los Angeles was basically a lawless small city of a few thousand as late as the 1870s, and much of the area around it was still pastures for cattle, huge land tracts mostly in the hands of a few owners (the Catholic Church was the biggest landowner in the early 1800s, then it was owned by the Californios--a mostly mestizo group--and then white Americans from the east that often learned Spanish and married the daughters of the rancheros).

                    There are parts of SoCal--areas of LA, Pasadena, further east into the citrus cities--where buildings from the late 1800s are not uncommon, but even in cities that were developed in the early 20th century, you might not find many buildings from back then, simply because they were torn down and replaced--no one really thought of them as being historic.

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                      #11
                      John Adams

                      Looking forward to the series on DVD. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney: some solid casting there.

                      Laura Linney kind of ruined the Squid and the Whale for me, she's far too likable a person as the mom, which makes the divorce plot a bit too one-sided.

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                        #12
                        John Adams

                        A detail from last night's episode: I noticed both Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson speak with a marked West Country twang. I know that dialects from that part of England constituted part of New World speaking patterns but wouldn't they have become less obvious by the end of the 18th Century? Also is it likely Franklin, from New England, and Jefferson, from Virginia would have similar accents?

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                          #13
                          John Adams

                          I've found this series to be surprisingly excellent. I was expecting the typical hagiographic recounting, but think it has been far from that, particularly with respect to Adams (especially in the most recent episode) and Jefferson. George Washington still comes off as pretty much an unalloyed Great Man, but in a more quiet and human way than I had thought.

                          One of the things I've found most interesting is the portrayal of Jefferson after his time in France, and how his experience in pre-Revolutionary France informed his populism and distrust of elites. In the most recent episode, he even comes off as a bit unhinged, lending fresh context (to me) for his comment that: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." I'd always viewed that sentiment as an almost dry statement of political realities. In the context of the show, it is expressed with what almost seemed to be a minor amount of blood lust.

                          There's a decent discussion (now in 12 parts) of the series (including participation by series' main writer) on The New Republic site.

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                            #14
                            John Adams

                            One of the things I've found most interesting is the portrayal of Jefferson after his time in France.

                            We haven't got that far yet have we?

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                              #15
                              John Adams

                              We haven't got that far yet have we?
                              Last night's episode took place during Washington's presidency (Jefferson was Sec'y of State).

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                                #16
                                John Adams

                                We must be a week behind up here. Last night ended with Washington being sworn in as president and Adams showing off his Shane MacGowan style teeth.

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                                  #17
                                  John Adams

                                  ADC,

                                  I'm sorry about that. In the future, I'll spoiler mark posts (even though, I guess, historical tales can't really be spoiled, character-related beats are better to experience first hand).

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                                    #18
                                    John Adams

                                    Not a problem, you didn't give away anything plot-wise. I was just a bit surprised TMC usually stays in lockstep with HBO.

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