Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Damn You, HBO!

Deep down, everyone believes--without a reasonable doubt--exactly two things things about themselves: 1) "I'm a good driver"; and 2) "I don't watch a lot of TV." I'll maintain the veracity of #1 in my own case, but I've never been able to claim #2. (As an East Side Little League baseball player in South Bend, my teammates nicknamed me "Bugs" because watching Bugs Bunny made me late to practices.)

I try, but every time I attempt to kick the TV habit, something new comes along--usually from HBO. First, it was "Entourage," then "Curb Your Enthusiasm," then "Extras," then another series of "Entourage." Most recently, Anne and I succumbed to an addiction of "In Treatment" that should have put us on the couch, if not into Hazelden.

I thought we were free and clear once Gabriel Byrne shut the door on his psychiatric practice (at least for one season), because nothing else looked interesting... especially the site of a wigged and bug-eyed Paul Giamatti playing John Adams. The previews were comical. Still, "John Adams" had a good buzz, and listening to an audiobook on Lincoln and reading Twain's The Gilded Age had sparked a new interest in American history. We decided to DVR Mr. Adams and see what happened.

We're hooked.

Did you know that John Adams defended the British soldiers of The Boston Massacre... and won? I didn't, and neither did Tom Hanks. That and many other facts about John Adams are the reasons he optioned the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by David McCollough. You can't help but see the man's life and conclude that he was the Avis Rent-a-Car of history: He was our second president, not the first. And even though he "tried harder," he's gone largely ignored in popular culture.

What makes the series so good? For one, it's superbly acted (Giamatti makes it work, and Laura Linney is arguably even better as Abigail). And it also accomplishes something very difficult from an aesthetic standpoint, which is to "look good" (the cinematography is outstanding) while also showing you the hardships of life in 18th century America. The opening shot lingers on Adams riding a horse through a blinding New England snow storm. And scenes of a chaotic leg amputation and administering a small pox vaccination (I can still hear the saw and feel the needle) definitely do not sugar coat.

Most surprisingly, though, the series actually makes a corsets-and-wigs era of American history truly interesting without being hackneyed and cloying (I've always wanted to use those two words). In fact, believe it or not, to see Adams, Washington, Franklin and Jefferson interacting in one small Philadelphia room as the Continental Congress--and having real personalities (Tom Wilkinson's Benjamin Franklin steals every scene)--feels like a rock concert.

Yes, I'm a geek.

9 comments:

Mike said...

Ah, there's a place in the work for the geek...

I fall in that rare 1% of American society: 1) I admit to being the worst person behind the wheel of a large automobile and 2) I don't watch that much TV because I don't OWN one.

That's right. I'm downright unAmerican.

Although, if I had a TV, I'd be all over the Adams thing too.

Marc Conklin said...

Kudos to you, but how can you be a screenwriter and not own a TV?

Mike said...

I have a Netflix account and watch movie after movie after movie after movie on my MacBook. And I go to theaters and watch movie after movie after...the TV (as we knew it) is going the way of the dinosaur.

Anonymous said...

I thought movie theaters were going the way of the dinosaur -- replaced by in-home theaters.

Anyway, ditto on everything Marc said. I've never been a history buff, but -- talk about geeky -- I actually get chills watching this re-enactment of how our country was born.

Marc Conklin said...

Don't give anything away. We're only on episode 5.

Mike said...

Maybe I can rent out my crappy condo as an in-home movie theater. Charge admission, pop some popcorn, and lay out the Goobers, Diet Cokes and margaritas.

Out of the mouths of geeks ... an idea is born.

;-)

Nenos said...

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Aunt Christy said...

Loved "John Adams." Great TV. Couldn't sit through "In Treatment" though. Too much staring. zzzzz....

My TV-watching is pretty much HBO, any kind of "Mystery!" series, BBC America, and Premiere League Soccer (and football, when that rolls around). It adds up, but I don't have any kind of On Demand or Tivo and I find I watch less TV then my friends who do.

I haven't driven a car in many years. I not even sure of the rules any more....

Vegas Gopher said...

I approached "John Adams" with the same attitude -- looked corny, couldn't by "the guy from 'Sideways'" as the 2nd American president -- and swore not to watch it. Then, visiting a friend in Atlanta a couple weeks ago, I caught about 20 minutes of Episode 2 or 3 on his DVR and was hooked.

HBO is now re-running the whole thing, and I'm recording it so Kris and I can watch it in sequence.

And I remain a great driver.