How John Adams set the stage for Hamilton
When John Adams premiered on HBO in 2008 — 10 years ago to this day — the cable network was stuck in an identity crisis. The Sopranos and Six Feet Under had finished their celebrated runs, hyped series such as David Milch’s infamous surfing drama John from Cincinnati were bombing, and the dawn of Peak TV was still on the horizon. That year’s Emmys would mark the first time a basic cable show won Outstanding Drama Series, for AMC’s Mad Men, ever. HBO, the dominant prestige player on the market for a full decade, was struggling to stay fresh.
Not so much a groundbreaker, John Adams now represents the kind of hammy premium cable miniseries that HBO has (mostly) done away with. The show’s ratings were strong, it received great reviews, and it’d go on to win a mammoth 13 Emmy Awards as well as every Golden Globe for which it was nominated. HBO’s direction, in step with the rest of TV and the advent of the “limited” series, has since changed, pushing flashier fare like Big Little Lies and The Night Of.
But John Adams deserves a closer look than the trend might suggest: The sweep of the production — spanning more than 50 years and built on a $100 million budget — is undeniable. Its chief artistic value, however, is smaller in scale: bringing a valorized historical icon — a “Founding Father” — down to a thrillingly human level.
In that sense, the show’s legacy is comparable to the musical Hamilton. Premiering at the Public in 2015, it too arrived when its medium was in the midst of a pivotal transformation, moving toward edgier fare and simultaneously reviving the definition of a great musical. (“I was quite depressed about the state of the musical maybe five years ago,” Andrew Lloyd Webber recently told EW. “But now I’m seeing what Lin [-Manuel Miranda] is doing with Hamilton … and I’m so thrilled to see that melody is in fashion again.”)
Hamilton has resonated because of the way Miranda presents Alexander Hamilton, in all of his arrogance, intelligence, and complexity. As the mastermind himself put it: “The notion of our Founders being these perfect men who got these stone tablets from the sky that became our Constitution and Bill of Rights is bulls–t.”
The difference in impact between Hamilton and John Adams is stark: One has emerged as a cultural landmark, and helped revive an entire creative form; the other foreshadowed its style’s steady decline. And yet both are faithfully based on definitive biographies of their respective subjects, capturing the spirit of the men to the best of their ability.
John Adams shows the second U.S. president to be vain, stubborn, passionate about justice, and committed to the tenets of democracy. (Not for nothing, it also features a pre-Hamilton Hamilton, played by Rufus Sewell.) Given how folkloric the Founding Fathers still exist within pop culture and the historical imagination, that’s a fairly radical portrayal. And it’s one that bears striking similarities to Hamilton’s.
That’s also to say nothing of Paul Giamatti’s naturalistic performance as Adams, the kind you rarely find in period dramas across any medium. Late in the first John Adams episode, the eponymous character makes a speech accepting his nomination to the First Continental Congress.
It’s a triumphant, exciting moment, but Giamatti plays it so subtly, so touchingly, that it feels slightly out of place in the stately production — it has a level of humanity and surprise that’d almost fit better in a riskier contemporary take on the man. His turn is also comparable to Miranda’s Hamilton; the writer-actor brings every element of his fascination with Hamilton to his performance (musical and not), smartly fusing insecurity to ego.
Perhaps most fascinating is how Hamilton — with its brilliant raps and stunning setpieces — maximized the potential of theater in its portrait of a historical icon, just as John Adams maximized the potential of longform television in the same effort. Writer Kirk Ellis uses seven hour-plus installments to scrupulously detail his subject; Giamatti gradually unpeels Adams’ layers with a masterly touch; and director Tom Hooper tells the story in elegant, unobtrusive visual terms.
John Adams may not have been a sexy earth-shaker like Hamilton, but it was equally invested in bringing nuance and flaws to a man typically thought of mythically, or at least simplistically. In that sense, they’re companion pieces, unique historical dramas in conversation.
Of course, before Hamilton and John Adams, there was 1776, the 1969 Broadway musical (and later a movie-musical). Adams is central to this entertainingly comic take on the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and he’s depicted more cartoonishly — an “obnoxious and disliked” person, as the show’s refrain goes, a characterization which Adams biographer David McCullough (whose book formed the basis for the HBO mini) has since called inaccurate. It’s no Hamilton, but the show has lasted: It’s been successfully revived on Broadway and continues to be performed in regional theaters around the country.
The legacy of HBO’s John Adams, now at its 10th anniversary, exists somewhere between those two Founding Father musicals — with character depth of a Hamilton-esque modern quality, but a stodgy style that’s firmly past its expiration date. Such a handsome but stiff miniseries would be met with indifference in 2018; most of those 13 Emmys would probably be split between, say, the thematically sharp Big Little Lies, the cinematic Fargo, the presciently historical American Crime Story, and so on.
And yet: John Adams has more in common with Hamilton, and more to do with what led to that musical sensation, than it gets credit for. It’s both outdated and ahead of its time. Let’s consider John Adams’ legacy a complicated one, then: a marker of the end of an era in the prestige TV game, but a rousing early indicator of how pop culture — culminating in the phenomenon that is Hamilton — could enhance the way we view the past.