John Adams is a Hobbit — That’s a good thing

Now we come to TV, and the “John Adams” miniseries on HBO, which was kind of panned as boring after the first two episodes aired, and then you haven’t heard any critical peeps since. And despite the distractingly off-kilter camera work (We get it, Director Man, you’re “artsy.” Go buy an easel.) this is a fascinating show and continues the decade-long trend of great television.

Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson had a great portrait of the writer in the second episode. After penning the Declaration of Independence, he sits in the same room as Adams and Franklin read over his draft. Dillane has the wounded writer pose down perfectly — uncomfortably sitting as his editors read and perhaps gut his work, legs tightly crossed, attempting to look casual by slightly slouching against a chair-back but his one crossed arm belying his defensive posture trying to graciously accept edits while defending that “every single word was precisely chosen,” even as Ben Franklin corrects it: “‘Self evident’? ‘Self evident’ then.”

You can’t argue about the work of the two primary leads, Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. And in supporting roles as Jefferson and Washington, Dillane and David Morse are great, and even as a hammy Benjamin Franklin, Tom Wilkinson chews his scenes with relish and presumably bad teeth.

This week’s penultimate episode leads with now-President Adams and VP Jefferson trying and failing to renew their friendship. It’s poignant without reaching. Ditto for the scenes with Adams debating whether to sign the Alien and Sedition Acts. Giamatti plays Adams as a tortured soul here, even as he eventually signs the Acts and Jefferson later chides him as restricting the very freedoms they fought for some 20 years earlier. Can’t imagine the current Veep doing that (yes, I know Adams and Jefferson were not running mates in the years before the 12th Amendment).

This show isn’t even considered that good by many critics, at least based on their early reviews (the New York Times review has a surprising (or not) pair of fairly obvious corrections that shouldn’t have happened), though speculation is that it is Emmy bait.

I have to hand critic Alan Sepinwall of the Newark Star Ledger credit for the great line that “‘John Adams’ often feels like the ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ of American Revolution stories” — it’s a put-down, but I take it as one of the things I surprisingly like about this series.

As we’ve seen before with “The Wire,” and has been stated elsewhere, it sometimes takes a few episodes to get a series’ feet under itself — that’s the beauty of HBO, and I think something many critics forget. It’s like they’re network execs, and if a show doesn’t smash them in the mouth from the first 20 minutes, they’re ready to cancel it. Usually, the critics (if not the network execs) come around.

This is a show that has me reading and surfing (yes, even real books on my lunch break at Borders and (duh!) The Web) for history that I normally wouldn’t have peeked at. The scene in the second episode where Adams runs into Franklin and Washington and Jefferson in the span of, like, three minutes was like a walk into the American Hall of Fame.

And this week, with Adams and Abigail carriage-riding through the clear-cut forest to an under-construction White House among a field of “underfed slaves” was eerie and excellent at once, like a peek at the partially-built Death Star at the end of the third Star Wars (in a pandering bit to the old-school Star Wars fans at the end of an otherwise regrettable prequel series).

Plus, The Wife says John Adams looks like a Hobbit in the preview for the Final Episode. And I can’t take that as a bad thing, either.

Is there any greater sign that I have fully, irreversibly corrupted The Wife when she went on to expand on the Adams-as-Hobbit analogy by describing Peacefield as “Hobbit-land” — by which she meant Hobbiton, and more broadly, America.

“He is a Hobbit, always worrying about Hobbit-land.”


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