Series / John Adams

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"I'm just Farmer John..."

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy."

2008 US HBO's Mini Series about the life of John Adams, second President of the United States, from his defense of the soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre in 1770 to his death in 1826. It's based on the biography by David McCullough, and is divided into seven parts.

Two major themes stand out throughout this work: "Behind every great man is a great woman" and "The more things change, the more they stay the same".

Starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney.


This mini series contains examples of:

  • Anti-Villain: John Dickinson, who's adamantly opposed to independence but for very sympathetic and understandable reasons. This is markedly different from most other portrayals like 1776.
    • Similarly, King George III is sympathetically treated when Adams actually meets him. Evidently Truth in Television.
  • Artistic License History: Putting aside the fact that there's reasonable limitations on how true-to-life historical dramas can get, there are some inaccuracies and changes that stand out:
    • The tarring and feathering of a British customs official. Not only was this scene not present in the original book, it depicts the use of petroleum tar (AKA asphalt/bitumen) on the victim. The actual sort of tar used for tarring and feathering was pine tar, which has a melting point of 55 to 60 °C (130 to 140 °F) compared to petroleum tar's 100-190 °C (212-380 °F). Suffice to say, this change makes an act meant to be uncomfortable and humiliating into a (very likely) Cruel and Unusual Death.
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: The prestige gained by Washington as the main general of the Continental Army makes him a virtually uncontested candidate for the first presidency, much to Adams' chagrin.
  • Ass in Ambassador: Adams, to a degree while representing America in France. Franklin eventually gets him removed because of it. Ambassador Genet while whipping up support for the French in America is very much this.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Or rather, Awesome Moment of Swearing In. George Washington becoming the first president is truly a sight to behold. From the other Founding Fathers gathering behind him to walking towards the balcony where the audience hears the buzz of a crowd until a woman shouts "There he is!" and thousands of people cheer as Washington appears to take his oath. "God bless George Washington! President of the United States!"
    • Though Washington does deflate the mood a bit with his soft-spoken taking of the oath, forcing everyone to lean forward.
  • Bald of Awesome: John Adams and Benjamin Franklin are both balding.
  • California Doubling: The show takes place in various parts of colonial United States, including Philadelphia and Boston. However, the entire mini-series (save the the European scenes) was shot in Virginia.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Charles does this to John in "Unite or Die," when he describes their lack of contact when John and Abigail were in Europe.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: Some members of Congress still feel loyalty towards the king, though grieved by him.
  • Contrived Coincidence: More like remarkable coincidence, Adams and Jefferson did die the same day and exactly 50 years after the The Declaration of Independence was signed.
  • Courtroom Antics: John Adams when defending the British Soldiers after the Boston Massacre.
  • Culture Clash: Funnily enough not as strongly between enemies US and UK. John and Abigail Adams seem more baffled by the land of their allies, France.
  • Deadpan Snarker: George Washington certainly had his moments. And in general this was sort of Ben Franklin's thing.
  • Eccentric Mentor: Benjamin Franklin succeeds in Adams toning down his obnoxiousness... a little.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Adams is having trouble finding other delegates at the Continental Congress who share his desire for a complete split from England. Then he's introduced to George Washington, a hero of the French and Indian War who's attended the congress in his army uniform, and offers to round up a new regiment to defend against future attacks like Massachusetts has suffered. Adams is left speechless by the man's natural leadership skills.
  • Eternally Pearly-White Teeth: A rare aversion. Every character's teeth get noticeably more hideous-looking the older they get. In fact, George Washington is so tight-lipped, his teeth are never shown (he had false teeth).
  • Everyone Has Standards: Adams may not like the British, but he doesn't like mob violence either which is why he defends the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre since they were attacked by a mob and only defending themselves. Nor does he approve of the tarring and feathering of a tax collector who was just doing his job.
    John Adams: Do you approve of brutal and illegal acts to enforce a political principle, Sam? Answer me that, can you!?
  • Fan Disservice: Sarah Polley naked? Thank you. Covered in scratches? Jesus Christ...
  • Fish out of Water:
    • To say that Adams doesn't fit in at the French court is an understatement.
    • Adams' meeting with George III, in all its awkwardness, surely counts as an example. Behold.
  • Funny Foreigner: Played to the hilt by Franklin. The French stereotype of Americans is that they are all rustic backwoodsmen, so he goes about Paris as though he's been tailored, as Adams says, by a taxidermist.
  • General Ripper: Alexander Hamilton. The enemy X is Revolutionary France.
  • The Good Chancellor: Adams to Washington during his time as vice-president.
  • Happily Married: John and Abigail Adams. A stark contrast to the French court.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Omnipresent in this period piece work, with some of particular note:
    • George Washington appears throughout most of the series. True to form, his influence is felt even when he doesn't appear in the episode. Played by David Morse.
    • John Adams: The main character.
    • Thomas Jefferson is Adams' ally, best friend, rival, enemy, and best friend again.
    • Interestingly enough, the show watches John Quincy Adams from a young, bookish little boy all the way to ascending to the presidency.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Several characters get hit with this.
    • John Hancock and Samuel Adams are depicted as inciting the tarring and feathering of a British customs official—with petroleum tar no less. In reality, both were just as opposed to mob violence as John Adams is shown to be.
    • Alexander Hamilton. Here he doesn't get much screen time, but what little he does have makes him look like Adolf Hitler mixed with Otto von Bismarck. In reality he was philosophically conservative, a militarist, and a big government fan, but he was also one of the most senior American revolutionaries.
  • Interrupted Intimacy: Adams is the one who is embarrassed when he runs into Franklin while the latter nude, inside a bathtub and enjoying the company of Madame Helvétius. Subverted in that they are seemingly just playing chess.
    • Well, at the moment they were just playing chess. Knowing both Franklin and Mme. Helvétius, the chess was probably a prélude to something else.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: Adams' only response to a scathing newspaper article that hurls numerous physical insults at him:
    Abigail (reading a newspaper): Before it is too late to retrieve our deranged affairs, the people must demand the immediate resignation of old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, toothless Adams.
    John (shrugs and puffs his cigar): I'm not crippled.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • The Crown Officials are quick to point out that taxes that the colonies complain again were passed to pay for The French and Indian War: in which British Soldiers protected the colonies from the French and Native Americans, and the colonies seems unwilling to pull their own weight as it were
    • One of John Dickinson's concerns about seeking independence for the colonies is the possibility of Civil War. note 
  • Kavorka Man: Benjamin Franklin is not what some would call traditionally attractive. Nevertheless he is very popular with the ladies.
  • Large and in Charge: Washington, whose leadership is certainly not hindered by his large presence. After being introduced to Washington by Franklin, Adams notes that the former is a natural leader. Franklin quips that he's bound to lead something by virtue of always being the tallest man in the room.
  • Locked Out of the Loop: Mundane example when Vice-president Adams, to his surprise, is excluded by Washington from the government meetings and the day-to-day ruling of the country.
  • The Magnificent: Adams insists the President's dignity should have several honorary and bombastic titles or surnames, but Washington overrules him and sets it as "Mr. President and nothing more"
  • Never Live It Down: Invoked—outgoing president Adams is concerned that he will only be remembered for the Alien and Sedition Acts.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to a certain degree.
  • Pair the Smart Ones: Why John and Abigail have such a good marriage.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Abigail wore one of these during a trip to France.
  • Rage Breaking Point: The Crown placing Massachusetts under Martial Law is the catalyst for the American Independence in general and what motivates Adams to be a full-fledged revolutionary.
  • Reunion Kiss: Actually reunion sex upon Abigail's arrival in France. Those two really missed each other.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: The (historically inaccurate) Boston mob's use of petroleum tar/bitumen instead of pine tar really ramps up the savagery of the event.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: John Adams is visibly impressed when his wife puts on a nice dress at Versailles. Apparently Truth in Television.
  • Shout-Out: Several to 1776
    • In the final episode of the series, Adams is pacing nervously and Abigail says to him, "For God's sake, John, sit down". Her words are identical to the repeated line from "Sit Down, John", the opening number.
    • When John sees Trunbull's painting, he scathingly remarks that he "is no Rubens." Reminiscent of the play when he tells Franklin that the man painting his portrait "is no Botticelli."
  • Shown Their Work: Far more accurate than most works about The American Revolution. It's based on a legitimate work of history.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Combined with a fair amount of Squick for Adams (and hilarity for us), when Adams heedlessly barges into Franklin's quarters at the American Mission in Paris...only to find Franklin playing chess in a bathtub with Madame Helvétius.
  • Southern Gentleman: A lot of the Southern delegates—including Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson—are also portrayed this way. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina stands out though. When he privately informs Adams that his colony—pardon—state is willing to vote for independence he says that one of the reasons the southern delegates delayed for so long is that they are used to a more "courtly forum".
  • Strange Bedfellows: France of the Ancien Régime and the Rebellious States.
  • Stunned Silence: The delegates of the Second Continental Congress after they pass the Lee Resolution, making the United States an independent nation, July 2, 1776.
  • Talk to the Hand: Rutledge casually waves the back of his hand at an angry Adams and his supporters during the debate over independence.
  • Tar and Feathers: Adams witnesses a British tax collector being tarred and feathered by an angry Boston mob. Can serve as a Tear Jerker and horrific for some, conflicting emotions and all. Sure, the mob was angry over a rightly felt injustice, but to see a man screaming in agony for only trying to do his job is enough to make anyone feel for the unbearable pain he must have gone through. (But see Artistic License History above; the "tar" used was not actually asphalt.)
  • Tears of Joy: Adams awakens after a serious illness to the news that the British have surrendered at Yorktown. After several moment of digesting the information he breaks down in tears and kisses the messengers hand over and over.
  • Vice President Who?: Adams is chagrined when President Washington excludes him from Cabinet meetings. He later chafes at the uselessness of his office.
    • His annoyance at the uselessness of the office is actually one of the things that resulted in changing the nature of the Vice Presidency. As originally envisioned (and indeed, what happens to Adams), the Vice President was actually second place in the Presidential election. In other words, the guy who ran for the Presidency and lost to the victor. This was rectified relatively quickly, and the Vice President became the running mate to the President that is much more familiar in modern times.
  • War Is Hell: The first time Adams actually sees the army he created, it's suffering from cold, hunger, and smallpox.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Charles Adams gets this treatment in the series; with his father being largely absent during his childhood and teenage years, Charles becomes resentful, neglects his own wife and children and devolves into alcoholism and self-destructive behaviour before dying an early death. Not quite how history really played out, and more likely done to invoke Rule of Drama.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Invoked by John Adams to Sam Adams following the Tar and Feathers scene.


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