“My thoughts are so clear to me… each one takes perfect shape within my mind. But when I speak, when I offer them to others, they seem to lose all definition.” — Paul Giamatti as John Adams
John Adams, HBO’s seven-part miniseries depicting the life of the second president of the United States, has been described as ‘The West Wing with wigs’. Featuring as it does impassioned policy debates between knowledgeable and eloquent individuals who walk around a lot, the show might well be characterised in this way. At the same time, though, it seems to shortchange the richness of John Adams. I argue this as a fan of The West Wing: John Adams is a different beast.
What characterises The West Wing, it seems to me, is the belief that power may be excercised for good, and that it may be wielded – rarely, and with only the finest minds behind it, but weilded none the less – almost to perfection. This is the great energising hope, and the great depressing lie, which lies behind much of The West Wing‘s writing. Though Aaron Sorkin’s series was witty, engaging and often complex, constituting a seven-year class in US politics, it also paid only lip service to the concepts of compromise and depression. Characters often opined that they hadn’t got their way, and yet the viewer was still aware that The West Wing existed ion a better world, where better deals got struck. Partly this was thanks to its juxtaposition with the Bush years; mostly it was a symptom of the show’s very intellectual foundation. In a season two episode, following months of back-breaking work on a Congressional midterm campaign, the White House staff sit down and realize that no one has one or lost a single net seat. There response is a round robin chorus of ‘God bless America’.
The response of the characters in John Adams, on the other hand, would more likely involve frustration, anger, and (self-)destructive behaviour. Its central character, the Massachusets lawyer John Adams (a flawless Paul Giamatti), has been the forgotten filling in the Washington-Jefferson sandwich for so long largely because of his character: irrascible, self-regarding, and loquacious. This has prevented any hagiographic tradition forming behind Adams, giving the team behind this show an unrivalled means by which to slip under the skin of the American Revolution. In a gruesome scene in the very first episode, the series has John Hancock and Sam Adams, signatories to the Declaration of Independence, encourage a mob to tar and feather a customs officer of the Crown. This is unlikely history: there is no suggestion that either Hancock or Adams were present at, let alone at the centre of, any of the scattered tarrings of the period. But as a sign of the series’ intent it works a treat. By following Adams, whom no one has been told by a hundred myths to love without reason, the series gets to the heart of what was not a spontaneous flowering of brave and idealistic nationhood, but a grubby political event enlivened, as some can be, by a few beautiful ideas.
The source of these ideas is seen to be Thomas Jefferson, and the series cannot resist lionizing him. He is kept by and large to the margins, but as played by Stephen Dillane he is a magnetic, quixotic intellectual, with an unassuming charisma and an implacable idealism. To its credit, John Adams makes the point several times over that Jefferson owned slaves, leaving him a compromised and conflicted figure, whilst Adams – despite his personal faults – tilled his own land and thought slavery an abomination. Nevertheless, and curiously given the series’ focus, Jefferson emerges as a dominant figure whom even Adams admits at the end of his life has eclipsed him.
This odd wrinkle aside, however, John Adams does a wonderful job of demythologising the era. Its strongest segment may be the one dealing with the Second Continental Congress, in which ideas and arguments are thrown around as in a play by David Edgar, yet never seem to hold up the action. Satisfyingly, one of the finest performances in the whole series is here turned in by Zeljko Ivanek as John Dickinson, a member from Pennsylvania steadfastly opposed to conflict with the Crown. He is a sympathetic, energetic figure; the strength of his arguments, and the quality of his portrayal, prevent the episode getting carried away by the birth of the good ol’ USofA.
Indeed, what is most noticeable about John Adams is the way in which, the higher up the political pole its central character climbs, the darker and more melancholy the series gets. By the time Adams has ascended to the presidency, there is little joy in his life: it consists of constant battles with Alexander Hamilton (Rufus Sewell, having far too much fun), and of personal tragedies and public humiliation. The final episode, Peacefield, is one of the most affecting stories of elderly decline in television, Adams’s last years cast over with the clouds of his political failure, and ultimately the death of his beloved wife, Abigail.
In the role of Abigail Laura Linney brings what humanity there can be to Adams’s political life. Linney is wonderful – resolute and worldly, but forgiving and empathetic. If she is perhaps at times a little too perfect, she too has a little of her husband’s impetuousness, a little of his too-hot temper. Their relationship is central to the series: Giamatti and Linney have a great chemistry, and they inhabit their roles fully. John Adams revolves not so much around the political as it does around John and Abby, and ultimately politics seems a chalice to be sipped from only lightly, its nectar largely damaging and doomed to fall short of our best expectations. Even Jefferson swaps his bright colours and dandyish dress for black morning wear when he ascends to the White House. At root, office and politics are burdensome necessities which can help but rarely solve. (In this way, too, John Adams is closer to Jefferson than its eponymous hero.) It is a sobering, but timely, message.
Criminally, its first UK broadcast was hidden in the teatime schedules of More 4. Channel 4 is to treat it little better: it starts on that channel on December 27th, at 5pm. Make the time, but do not expect a rousing God bless America.