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.
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.