Historical dramas are a dodgy proposition to pitch to the mainstream. True, Showtime has been doing all right with “The Tudors,” but let’s face it: the success of that series has ultimately been as much to do with audiences eating up the soap-opera aspects of the storyline as it is to do with the actual historical events contained within. Since HBO’s new 7-part miniseries, “John Adams,” can’t possibly compete on the same level (nor would its producers have any interest in attempting to do so), it’s evident why the network has felt obliged to promote the work everywhere possible, up to and including every single Netflix envelope that’s gone out in the past few weeks. The good news, however, is that if people actually take a chance and tune in, what they’ll find is an enthralling program which will, fingers crossed, inspire Americans to sit up and take proper notice of their history.

Paul Giamatti and David McCullough at the Virginia premiere of John Adams
Paul Giamatti and David McCullough
at the Virginia premiere of “John Adams”

Based on David McCullough’s 2002 biography, “John Adams” provides a detailed examination of the life of America’s second President, with the title character played by…Paul Giamatti? Giamatti might seem on the surface to be an odd choice for the role of John Adams, since he’s known more for the comedic rather than the dramatic and hasn’t done all that many period pieces; the only ones that leap immediately to mind are “The Illusionist” and “Cinderella Man,” and both of those take place in the 20th century, so they’re not really stepping that far back in time. You’d never know of his lack of his experience from his performance here, however. The phrase “acting tour de force” doesn’t begin to describe how substantially Giamatti owns the role of John Adams; it’s a measured performance, showing a man who loves his wife and family but struggles to find a way to keep them close while building a new nation.

Screenwriter Kurt Ellis
at the Virginia premiere of “John Adams”

The first episode of the series, “Join or Die,” necessarily starts a bit slow, in order to introduce us to Adams and his formidable wife, Abigail (Laura Linney), and establish their relationship. He is a man who is often uncertain of his talents and abilities as a lawyer, confident in his knowledge but, on occasion, prone to offering too much information when making his arguments; she stands behind him at every opportunity, helping him to tweak his oratory without tramping on his masculinity. Adams finds himself with a career-making case as a result of the infamous Boston Massacre of 1770, when British soldiers fired upon a crowd of citizens; when the soldiers are arrested and charged with murder, Adams not only defends them but, indeed, wins them an acquittal, thereby earning a reputation as a man of strong principles. Although Giamatti is mostly reserved in the early minutes of the episode, the courtroom scenes provide him with his first real opportunity to shine, offering ample proof as to why he has received tremendous praise for his performance from virtually all of his fellow participants in the miniseries.

Executive producer Tom Hanks
at the Virginia premiere of “John Adams”

Adams’ victory for the British soldiers is a significant turning point for him, resulting in his cousin, Samuel (yes, the beer guy), suggesting that he serve as one of Massachusetts’ representatives in the Continental Congress, making for a seamless segue into the second episode, “Independence.” It’s no wonder that this is the episode that’s been screened in the various premieres around the country, spotlighting as it does America’s initial steps toward declaring their independence from Britain. We’re introduced to several familiar names, including Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson), George Washington (David Morse), and Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane), but those who don’t know their history will perhaps be meeting John Dickinson (Zeljko Ivanek, from “Damages”) for the first time. Dickinson, one of the esteemed representatives from the Pennsylvania colony, proves to be a major thorn in the side of Adams and his fellow collaborators in their attempts to secure a unanimous vote for independence. (It would be fair to say that the methodology used to allow Dickinson to save face on the matter has stood the test of time.) Wilkinson’s lighthearted performance as Franklin is wonderful, and Morse paints a picture of Washington as a soft-spoken gentleman with a profound dedication to duty, but Episode 2 also offers Linney a chance to built on the character of Abigail Adams, showing how she was required to be at least as strong as her husband to keep their family together in his absence; the scenes involving their struggle with the horrors of smallpox are turn-your-head-away excruciating, but they result in showing what a determined woman Abigail was.

Director Tom Hooper
at the Virginia premiere of “John Adams”

Based on its first two episodes, it’s clear that director Tom Hooper has sought to make “John Adams” work not simply as a drama but also as an authentic historical representation of the era. The cinematography is designed to remind viewers just how dark things were in the days before electricity, but it also works to provide a feeling of foreboding, ominously reminding us that war is right around the corner. Calling the series a “costume drama” is to sell it short; by the end of the second episode, history has truly come alive thanks to the combination of top-notch performances and period accuracy. Not a history buff? You just might be by the end of “John Adams.”

If you only have time to watch one of the two episodes airing tonight, definitely make it “Independence,” but if you’ve got TiVo, be sure to record them both, because, quite frankly, you shouldn’t miss either of them.