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REVOLUTIONARY TV

The Baltimore Sun

The leading man is a short, bald, pot-bellied lawyer with a passion for reading Latin and a habit of making enemies. The leading lady quotes Shakespeare, dresses modestly and seldom looks like she's having fun.

The opening hour unfolds against a backdrop of mud, snow and the endless gray of a New England winter. And all seven hours are filled with talk in historically accurate English accents about big ideas from the 18th century like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This is not exactly the stuff of which TV miniseries are usually made.

And yet, John Adams, a $100 million-plus production about the life and times of America's second president, is one of the most compelling miniseries of the decade. The HBO program, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, has the dramatic sweep of such old-time TV epics as Winds of War, but it also hews absolutely to the Pulitzer Prize-winning work written by David McCullough about Adams and the first 50 years of American life.

Produced by Tom Hanks and directed by Emmy Award-winner Tom Hooper, John Adams proves that true-to-life American history can make for inspired prime-time entertainment. That daring proposition from TV's most acclaimed channel is all the more remarkable coming at a time when many school systems have abandoned teaching students about the national past for fear that it might be deemed boring.

"John Adams is about ideas and it's about one man's political education - and that's rare for television," says Paul Giamatti, who plays Adams. "The language alone was something that made it hard for me to believe that somebody was actually going to put this on television. To have people talking at this high level and with this amount of intelligence is just utterly unique for commercial TV."

Rarer yet is the commitment that Hanks and HBO made to a truthful rendering of the past - rather than one cut to fit the flashy fashion of prime-time entertainment, McCullough says.

"What Tom Hanks and the people at HBO did in making this miniseries is phenomenal," he says. "Aside from an enormous amount of money, what they invested in this project is a desire to do something right about the founding time of our country and the secular faith on which our whole way of life is based. And they accomplished that - they never compromised and they never cheapened the history."

Trusted Tom Hanks

Few have mastered the craft of making authentic history come alive for a mass audience like McCullough.

Perhaps most widely known as host of the PBS series American Experience and narrator of Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, McCullough is twice a winner of each of the three most prestigious awards for historical writing - the Pulitzer and Parkman Prizes and the National Book Award. Furthermore, he has managed to rack up eye-popping sales, with his work on Adams now in its 65th printing with 2.7 million sales and 149 weeks on The New York Times best-seller lists.

"When you turn your work - your book - over to someone, you're putting your faith in their interpretation of your text," McCullough says of the transition from print to screen. "Two hours into our first meeting, I knew Tom Hanks was someone who was keenly interested in American history and totally committed to getting it right. And I must say, Tom Hanks never, ever let me down."

Hanks, Hooper and screenwriter Kirk Ellis made dozens of daring choices in their adaptation of McCullough's book, and the reward for their dedication to historical accuracy and detail is an immediate and gripping sense of verisimilitude.

The opening sequence is representative of the way in which the series successfully pulls viewers out of the present and transports them to 18th-century life as it was brutally lived on the ground - rather than in the prettified portraits of Founding Fathers that hang in schools.

Instead of the color and pageantry often used to open historical costume dramas in hopes of grabbing viewer attention, John Adams begins in 1770 with a solitary man on a horse that is gingerly trying to find its way along an icy road in a snowstorm. At least, it looks like a man on the horse. All one can see is a bundle of gray wool sitting in the saddle.

At the risk of tune-out, director Hooper (Elizabeth I) holds the desolate image until the viewer can almost feel the icy ruts under the horse's hooves and the snow tearing into the face of the man on its back.

The rider is Adams, making his way from his farm outside of Boston to Philadelphia for the gathering that would ultimately draft the Declaration of Independence.

Forget forming a government and founding a nation, just making it from Boston to Philadelphia on horseback in the winter seems a monumental achievement.

Hard realities

"You hear people say of days gone by, 'Oh, that was a simpler time,'" McCullough says. "That's nonsense. Life was hard, harder than we have any idea. Because John Adams was stout, people often think of him as pudgy and soft.

"One of the reasons I began my book as I did - with Adams heading off to Philadelphia in the dead of winter on horseback for nearly 400 miles - was to show what he was made of. No softie does that."

There are several other moments during the miniseries when sticking to accurate depictions of the brutish reality of Colonial life makes for stunningly vivid drama.

One involves a graphic rendering of the horrific pain and degradation inflicted on a victim who was tarred and feathered and carried on a rail.

The second comes when Abigail Adams, at home alone with three children as her husband serves as one of the new nation's first ambassadors to France, decides to have her family inoculated against small pox - a gory and highly unpredictable process at the time.

A warning: Watching the wounds on a smallpox victim being lanced so that the fluid from within can be placed into cuts made into the arms of Abigail and her children may be too intense for the tastes of some viewers. On the other hand, no better testimony could be given to the courage and strength of this extraordinary woman.

"In her supposedly simpler time, Abigail had to keep the farm going, find hired help, cope with inflation and shortages of all kind, all on her own while John was away for months, eventually years, at a stretch," McCullough says."The shadow of death loomed everywhere. Epidemic disease, dysentery and smallpox could and did sweep in any time, taking hundreds of lives. Nobody knew where these horrors came from or how to stop them or when they would be over."

'A great love story'

In the miniseries that will anchor the next six Sunday nights for HBO, the pain and darkness of such moments are redeemed by an inspirational core narrative celebrating the love of Abigail and John Adams and the triumph of the big ideas that came to define our national identity. McCullough's primary source: the thousands of letters between John and Abigail.

"It is a great love story," McCullough says, "It's a cliffhanger of a story about a man and a woman caught up in one of the most dangerous, tumultuous periods in the whole larger story of our country. Together they were at the heart of what was then called the 'Glorious Cause of America.' They saw themselves as taking part in one of the surpassing dramas in history - which indeed it was."

For his part, Giamatti says he's just happy that the producers and writers "allowed these two characters to be as intelligent as they were."

Such a commitment to intellect, after all, is not exactly what prime-time TV is known for in this era of reality TV.

"The one thing I kept praying after I took the job is that I hope to God they don't chicken out and start rewriting it and trying to dumb it down," Giamatti says. "Aside from the character, aside from the story, aside from everything, it was just the intelligence of this miniseries that I found so exciting."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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