Review of HBO’s John Adams

Now that I have had time to digest it and watch it again with friends, I am now prepared to review the recent HBO series John Adams for this site. The series link to the Revolutionary War and early National period are quite appropriate for this site. I was thoroughly impressed with this program, though did notice areas of artistic license and a couple areas of inaccuracy.

The series begins in Boston in 1770 and presents Adams coming upon the Boston Massacre, which likely did not happen, but was a way for the series to link the event to Adams’ defense of the British soldiers. The bulk of the first episode revolves around the trial of the soldiers, the Boston Tea Party, Intolerable Acts, and Adams’ election to the Continental Congress. There are a couple of disturbing scenes, first, the aftermath of the Massacre, and the second showing a man being tarred and feathered. In addition, the members of the Adams family, particularly Abigail, are introduced.

The second episode deals with the beginning of the Revolution and the debate over independence and introduces George Washington and Ben Franklin into the series. The portrayal of Franklin was quite good, but I personally found the portrayal of Washington a bit troubling. In the series, Washington is portrayed as rather soft-spoken, which may recall his humble personality, however, given his temper, particularly when he dismissed Lee at Monmouth, I argue that the actor portraying Washington could have been humble, but spoke louder. The appearance of Washington is also a bit inaccurate in the early episodes, as he appears as a much older man, when he was only in his 40s. The appearance is likened to the portrait on the dollar bill.

The third episode finds Adams and his son John Quincy journeying to France to assist Franklin in securing aid. This episode portrayed the French as a bunch of prissy people, with men and women wearing lots of makeup and the men acting rather feminine. This portrayal of the French was quite amusing, as was the clear discomfort displayed by Adams towards the rather liberal culture of France displayed. Adams is then dispatched to the Netherlands to appeal for financial assistance for America and is initially unsuccessful. At the same time, he sends John Quincy (who was fourteen at the time) to Russia as a diplomatic aid. He contracts illness and is shown near death.

The fourth episode finds John and Abigail reuniting in France to negotiate the Treaty of Paris. This episode begins to illustrate the eventual split between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The Adams are dispatched to England, where Adams meets with King George III. The Adams are unhappy in England and John requests recall. The recall is granted and they return to America, with John finding his children much older and Charles heading down a path to destruction. Adams is elected Vice President and we see a great scene of the inauguration of Washington.

The fifth episode finds Adams serving as VP and President of the Senate. His personality causes the Senate to change the rules barring him from speaking when he attempts to create an elaborate title for Washington, which annoys the Senators. Adams experiences conflicts with Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, as well as being excluded from Washington’s Cabinet meetings. Much of the episode revolves around the ratification of Jay’s Treaty. The episode ends with Adams being elected President.

Episode six focuses on Adams’ presidency, particularly the XYZ Affair and Quasi-war with France. The split between Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton becomes complete. The episode also shows John and Abigail entering the White House. Adams’ son Charles plays a prominent role in the episode, as Adams confronts his son’s alcoholism and disowns him. Charles dies in 1800 and Adams will not forgive his lost son. Adams is defeated by Jefferson and retires to private life.

The last episode of the series finds Adams living at his farm Peacefield in the last years of his life. This episode contains the most inaccuracies of any episodes. In addition, the passage of time in this episode is the greatest, with twenty-five years passing through the hour-long episode. The episode revolves around the deaths of his daughter Nabby in 1813 and Abigail in 1818, as well as his aging and rekindling his friendship with Jefferson. The inaccuracies include when Adams and Jefferson reignited their friendship, which was in 1812, but portrayed in the series as after Abigail’s death in 1818. This inaccuracy contains another within it, as Dr. Benjamin Rush encouraged Adams to write Jefferson, but in 1812 (he died in 1813) In addition, a scene involving Adams criticizing Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence signing painting is inaccurate, as Adams only mentioned the door that Washington bolted out of when he was nominated to be commander of the Continental Army. The election of John Quincy to the Presidency is portrayed nicely. The end of the episode features a touching segment dealing with the deaths of Adams and Jefferson and is very well done.

Overall, the series is quite good, despite some inaccuracies. John Adams and most of the other persons portrayed are done well. John Adams is the Band of Brothers of the American Revolution and I hope that the series will ignite renewed interest in the American Revolution and early National periods in our history. I encourage everyone, except kids (there is adult content) to watch the series or order it on DVD, as it is reasonably priced. Great job HBO on another great historical series.

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One thought on “Review of HBO’s John Adams

  1. What perfect timing to read this. I was just discussing this series on the Passport to History social network with another guy. He’s seen the series and liked it. I haven’t yet, but want to. I’ll be looking for the DVDs. I’m happy to see it’s a worthy investment.

    Interestingly enough, the guy I was talking with said he’s always felt that Adams, more than any other single person, was responsible for American independence. What do you think?

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