Apple TV+: Quietly Leading in Historical Drama

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It’s been quite surprising and delightful to watch Apple TV-Plus transform into an unassuming haven for remarkable historical content. While its science fiction falls short, its dramas remain undervalued, its “Peanuts” specials unnoticed, and with “Ted Lasso” wrapped up, the Apple-backed streaming service has quietly established a niche producing some of the finest historical series in recent times.

Whether it’s the Tom Hanks-supported WWII features “Greyhound” or “Masters of the Air,” the outstanding Civil War drama “Manhunt,” the thought-provoking documentary “Lincoln’s Dilemma,” or grand projects like “Napoleon” and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Apple TV-Plus demonstrates its readiness to invest heavily in history-centric series for a specialized audience of enthusiasts. 

The latest addition is “Franklin,” a miniseries from ex-HBO chairman Richard Plepler and screenwriter Kirk Ellis, both of whom were instrumental in creating the “John Adams” miniseries. Drawing on their previous experience adapting the noted David McCullough book into a showcase for one of Paul Giamatti’s finest performances, their newest project adapts Stacy Schiff’s A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America into an eight-episode political drama, which just concluded on May 17. 

The series has largely gone unnoticed in broader pop culture, a casualty of the streaming economy’s oversaturation. Despite this, the reception has been mostly lukewarm to negative. Its Rotten Tomatoes audience rating stands at 52 percent, with mainstream critics mixed in their reviews — some labeling it “crackling,” “addictive,” “nuanced,” and “beautifully textured,” while others deem it “clunky,” “apathetic,” “poorly focused,” “exhausting” and “mind-numbing.” 

The critiques bear some truth. “Franklin’s” creators haven’t managed to recreate the “John Adams” magic, especially in a post-1619 Project or post-“Hamilton” era. However, a drama about Benjamin Franklin naturally includes eccentric elements. As the oldest and wisest of the Founding Fathers, Franklin’s role in the American Revolution was fraught with behind-the-scenes dealmaking and scandalous drama. In these aspects, “Franklin” succeeds. 

The series is set during the American Revolution, chronicling the years Franklin spent in France as an unofficial U.S. ambassador, attempting to gain favor with the French elite and draw England’s adversary into the war. 

The core theme is the complexity of diplomacy, which Benjamin Franklin is uniquely both well-suited and unsuited to navigate. As an international celebrity, renowned scientist, and embodiment of the New World, Franklin is a sage, libertine, and journalist with a keen understanding of the French. Beloved by those around him, aware of his fame, and eager to exploit the political game for personal gain, he is able to be humorous on demand, while still maintaining the earthiness and resilience synonymous with the early American spirit, contrasted with the elegance of the aristocracy.

Franklin’s arrival in France, therefore, is a major source of drama and intrigue, as he skillfully engages in the necessary games to advance in the opulent world of 1770s France. 

Michael Douglas takes on the titular role, but his portrayal of Franklin is more an interpretation than a true embodiment of the character. His Franklin is sharp, witty, smooth, sexually liberated, and kind, particularly in his grandfatherly relationship with his grandson, Temple. Unlike Howard da Silva in “1776,” who fully embodied Franklin, Douglas offers a version that is engaging and complex but lacks authenticity. 

Given that the series spans nearly a decade, the pacing slows at times, with main characters struggling to push the plot forward. Temple’s coming-of-age story runs in the background, while Franklin deals with inquisitive police, British spies, self-centered aristocrats, and a hesitant French king wary of harming the monarchy by choosing sides in the war. This is a tale of gradual maneuvering, with characters having intricate motivations and cunning individuals constantly trying to outmaneuver each other, often to little effect. The slow pace aligns with Franklin’s own declared strategy to wear down the French court, but it results in disjointed television plotting. 

Fortunately, Eddie Marsan’s John Adams enters in the latter half of the series, adding an extra layer of drama as the numerous plot threads begin to converge. Much like in the “John Adams” miniseries, which covers these events in far less time, Adams is clueless about dealing with French diplomats and differs significantly from Franklin, whose libertine activities appall him. Others exploit this rift to sow discord.

Despite its appeal to a niche audience, “Franklin” has much to recommend. Personally, there are few films or shows about the Revolutionary War. Notable ones include “The Patriot,” “Drums Along the Mohawk,” “1776,” “John Adams,” “Hamilton,” and a few low-budget TV shows and silent films. “Franklin,” though quiet and flawed, stands out simply because contemporary retellings of this critical historical period are rare and therefore easy to appreciate. 

Tyler Hummel
Tyler Hummel
Tyler Hummel is a Nashville-based freelance journalist, a College Fix Fellow, and a member of the Music City Film Critics Association. He has contributed to The Dispatch, The New York Sun, Hollywood in Toto, The Pamphleteer, Law and Liberty, Main Street Nashville, North American Anglican, Living Church, and Geeks Under Grace.

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