7.1.09

The Idiot Box: John Adams

35 seconds into HBO's miniseries, John Adams, I realized why I'm not more nationalistic.

When a country's most stirring anthems consist of a British drinking song, contains the line "we'll put a boot in your ass" or was written by a former cokehead/blackjack dealer, it's hard to be patriotic.

The title sequence of John Adams, on the other hand...that'll raise goosebumps.



The journey through America's early iconography recalls a time when snakes were more American than eagles and the word "don't" didn't need an apostrophe. Most of all, and the reason that clip stirs such emotion in me, it recalls a time when America was the underdog. Americans love an underdog.

John Adams was nominated for 23 Emmys, winning 13. Both Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney were chosen Outstanding Actor and Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for their roles as John and Abigail Adams. Even the scenery-chewing David Morse plays George Washington with a quiet grace.

It's not the acting or the costumes or the music I love about the series, though. In my opinion, Giamatti's Adams is all over the place...is he humble and pragmatic or a vain, ill-tempered dreamer? Linney's Abigail is more consistent, struggling between knowing her family's role in the advent of a new nation and wanting a normal family life.

It's the depiction. In recent years, the founding fathers have become Jesus-like figureheads. How would they define the separation of Church and State? Would they still argue for the right to bear arms? When these dead white men aren't propping up political debates, their personal lives are picked over by buzzards posing as historians. Nowadays, Thomas Jefferson is more notable for knocking up slaves than authoring the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams depicts the founders respectfully, as the extraordinary men they were, but without slavish praise. Every detail of the Declaration of Independence is fought over by intelligent men who disagreed. Maybe the founders had an inkling of the history they were making, but it was also their everyday life.

One of the more riveting storylines revolves around the debate between Adams and John Dickinson, a powerful congressional delegate from Pennsylvania who, due to his Quaker heritage, favored a non-violent approach to gaining independence. As the appeal of violent uprising grew, Dickinson's opposition weakened. Dickinson finally left the Congress rather than compromise his beliefs by signing the Declaration of Independence.

What if public opinion had not swelled toward revolt, and Dickinson's beliefs prevailed? Britain's former colonies, from Australia to South Africa to India to Canada, took different routes toward independence. Was ours the right path? At the top of the world's food chain, from a secular position, it's easy to say 'yes'. And even though I've reaped every reward the patriots won, I'm not convinced.

(For more on HBO opening credit sequences, there's this.)

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