Home » Blogs » Franklin

It would prove hard to find a more worthy historical miniseries about the founding of America than HBO’s “John Adams” —– absorbing, graceful, and finely crafted —– which in 2008 told the story of one of our country’s most illustrious architects. But as the subject of writer Kirk Ellis’ second major television project, it’s a character he can’t seem to shake. In 2024, that character has become Benjamin Franklin, another of John Adams’ contemporaries , in an eight-episode series for Apple TV+. The only difference is that where “John Adams” was one of history’s self-seriousness advocates for liberty and equality, “Franklin” is a little more fun with its libertine protagonist.

It’s 1776; the Revolutionary War is well underway. To foster monetary and logistical support from France, America sends Benjamin Franklin (a dryly witty Michael Douglas), along with his teenage grandson and aide Temple (Noah Jupe), across the Atlantic. There they infiltrate French society; they skulk around its highest halls trying to navigate their way through centuries-old obstacles keeping them from those who control France’s purse strings and would therefore open up the vaults of its war chests . In these early moments, though, both American boys are mostly seen romancing their hosts: Whether it’s Benjamin batting eyes at Anne Louise Brillon de Juoy (a radiant Ludivine Sagnier) or Temple cozying up to some idealistic revolutionaries (including “On Becoming a God in Central Florida”’s Théodore Pellerin as charming Gilbert du Motier, soon-to-be famous as Marquis de Lafayette). 

But soon British spies and representatives get involved , so that for every step closer they get to gaining traction with French aristocrats who could aid their cause , Franklin and Temple take two steps back into diplomatic chaos: They’re joined at negotiations by a British doctor (Daniel Mays) who’s secretly a double agent; Franklin is interrupted mid-meeting with an offer of his own from John Adams (Eddie Marsan), whose uptight self-righteousness threatens to undo any progress Franklin has made in winning over the French; as he and John Joy are clawing their way to a formal treaty signing with Britain at the end of the war, their competing visions for America’s future and how it should treat its allies come into sharp relief. But in the end they —–

What “Franklin” wants most to be is clear in the show’s opening titles, which run through a Pythonesque collection of figures drawn from political cartoons of the time showing Franklin entangled in various states of scandal and intrigue. It’s also present in Tim van Patten’s meticulous direction; he and cinematographer David Franco shoot mostly with natural light, leaning on desaturated blues to evoke an ostentatious France that’s rotting from within (see: frequent shots of characters pissing against ornate stone walls). Jay Wadley’s score balances 18th-century French classical stuffiness with modern scoring techniques that sell the show’s frequent jaunts into political thriller mode.

As Franklin, Douglas is an exceedingly funny person; he harmonizes the taken for granted historical humor of the real Franklin with an unmistakably Douglas-ian shine in his eye. He’s grandfatherly with Temple, but no less of a hedonist than someone like Gordon Gekko—he plays Franklin as if one of his erotic-thriller protagonists from “Basic Instinct” or “Fatal Attraction” got zapped back in time and slapped on a powdered wig. He’s wizened but no less amorous for his advanced years, the kind of aging playboy that fits in nicely with the pre-French Revolution decadence around him. Douglas handles the dry wit of Ellis and Korder’s script with a nimbleness belying his years, even as Franklin’s own health threatens to leave him bedridden for much of the latter stages.

Although he acts well with his co-stars, especially when providing fatherly guidance to Jupe’s Temple, he is at his most animated when trading barbs with Adams, who enters halfway through the series as if he were Nick Fury about to recruit Ben into the Founders Initiative. Marsan’s energy as Adams is decidedly different from Giamatti’s in Ellis’ original 2008 miniseries—“Franklin” feels like a series-long extension of that series’ third episode, which depicted a more truncated version of these events—but no less welcome. He’s a haughtier, more confrontational balm to Franklin’s frivolity, a junior statesman who hasn’t yet figured out how to play the game. (His private attempts to speak and memorize French are some of the show’s more archly funny moments.)

The show trips up more when focusing on Temple, though Jupe plays the role with an admirable youthful pluckiness. While Franklin wrestles with legacy-building during his twilight years, Temple comes into his own youth, losing himself in the frippery and bustle of French life. He falls in love with an opera singer, gets embroiled in love triangles, and even takes a job as a page rushing letters across Paris at speed. These subplots could be their own show; they don’t stand up to the weightier statecraft of Douglas’ sections, and in a show already stretching past eight hours, often feel like distractions, and don’t offer enough contrast with Ben Franklin’s more sophisticated statecraft to justify the runtime.

As historical dramas go, “Franklin” is a cracking look at how to build a republic, even from an ocean away. After all, America’s freedom from Britain was won by more than just muskets on the battlefields of Lexington and Concord; it took gumption, charm and no small amount of promise-making whether real or illusory—to our allies. What Van Patten & co achieve is the feeling of a new nation being forged in the dying embers of an old empire—and the cautious optimism all parties feel about that potentiality.

Also, Read On Fmovies

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *