The ad campaign for Sons of Liberty makes it look like The Avengers in powered wigs. Jason O’Mara is … George Washington! Michael Raymond-James is … Paul Revere! Dean Norris is … Ben Franklin! They face the viewer, heads slightly inclined, glowering joyously: a secret society of early American heroes, fanning out across the Colonies, taking the fight to the Crown. At first this three-part History Channel series, which debuts tonight, seems like it’ll live up to its ad campaign, to its detriment, and dumb history down into spectacle and action for action’s sake. It gets better and slightly deeper as it goes along, but never to such an extent that you wouldn’t rather be re-watching HBO’s John Adams, or maybe 1776.
In the prologue, set in 1765, future founding patriot Sam Adams (Ben Barnes) escapes tax assessors who are irked that he’s letting his pals take a payment rain check and leads them on a foot chase all over Boston, running in and out of houses, over furniture, through windows, etc. The scene goes on and on, because series like this have a mandate to be “awesome” and “edgy” and “wild,” and not remind people of reading and stuff.
There are more chaotic action scenes like that one. Sons of Liberty is so determined to be Not Your Father’s History that at times it turns into Your Little Brother’s. The series is big on fistfights and rifle volleys, boozing and screwing (Ben Franklin, that hedonistic intellectual, loves his liquor and sponge baths), plus tall ships moving through eerie blue fog, and English officers in powdered wigs sniffing disdainfully at the hard-living, idealistic rebels (most of whom are also played by actors from mother England and her past and present territories).
The core cast is overwhelmingly male — these colonies seem to have been denuded of women, except as significant others and extras — and on those rare occasions when Sons of Liberty has a chance to expand its vision beyond the expected man-cave parameters, it doesn’t. The most conspicuous example is Crispus Attucks, believed to have been the first casualty of the Boston Massacre. His backstory as a probable half-black, half-Native American, and perhaps a freed slave might’ve been fascinatingly explored, but here he’s just a random dark-skinned man who catches a redcoat shell as Sam Adams looks on horror. Sorry, bro!
When the series momentarily forgets its awesomeness mandate, though, it’s quite good — and not surprisingly so, given the pedigree. One of the producers is Kirk Ellis, whose résumé includes some of the more intelligent, populist, fact-based dramas to air on American commercial TV; the short list includes Judy Garland: Me and My Shadow, The Beach Boys: An American Family, and the aforementioned John Adams (which one could say is the acoustic version of a cable TV American Revolution story, as opposed to this one’s bombastic electric cover).
The only thing these programs have in common, besides their rooted-ness in recent or distant history, is a reluctance to paint any character as entirely good or entirely bad, much less show any of them, even the brilliant or eccentric ones, acting with a full understanding of why they’re doing anything. The heroes of Founding Fathers are painted in broad brushstrokes, but once you settle in and get a good look at them, you realize they are, to quote David Milch’s line about Deadwood’s characters, mysteries to themselves — even when they’re aware of themselves as outsize personalities or characters. Consider Franklin, who plays up the boisterous well-read caveman routine to drown our fears that he’s just a drunk horndog at heart; or John Hancock (Rafe Spall), who at first is worried mainly about holding onto his money and whose dithering vocal delivery evokes Charles Grodin; or Sam Adams’s cousin John (Henry Thomas), a worrywart who’s eventually going to get over his obsession with being all things to all people.
Although this miniseries stages large-scale action reasonably well (with the occasional lapse into visual clichés, such as the silent/slow-motion Boston Massacre) and has a marvelous atmospheric quality, it seems more generic and un-special the more conventionally “exciting” it’s trying to be. Once the bargain-bin Last of the Mohicans score gets going, you know you can safely go refill your coffee or check text messages. The real dramatic action is happening between men in bars or studies, sitting at tables, talking. “If a populist isn’t given the chance to prosper, then unrest and even violence is inevitable,” Franklin tells British overlords, looking very hung-over but also speaking sense.