Indeed, a strange flatness permeates the entire cast and certainly that Congress. With Wilkinson trying to decide whether Ben Franklin was a vaudevillian or a canny politico, and Stephen Dillane's Jefferson given nothing much to do, it is hard not to long for the song-and-dance numbers from "1776" just to have something to watch. Only David Morse radiates anything like charisma, but then as George Washington he is allowed to tower and wear a cool uniform (though I'm not sure what's up with his mouth -- is he going for the false teeth thing?).
Things pick up a bit in the third episode when Adams goes to France, where his Yankee frankness is not appreciated (and a bloodier revolution is still a few years away), and then as he takes his place in the nascent government. Giamatti's air of resigned irritation makes more sense at this point, and the narrative becomes more concerned with actual story than making certain that you, slothful television viewer, feel the proper gratitude for being a citizen of the 21st century.
There are, of course, some wonderful and moving moments in the first and second episodes. The confused exhilaration after the battles at Lexington and Concord, the what-now? silence that falls over the Congress when the Declaration has passed, the smoky glare of the Battle of Bunker Hill viewed from the Adamses' farm -- these images beautifully capture both the mundane and the extraordinary and how they conspired to make history. In those moments you see what the filmmakers were striving for and may make "John Adams" worth watching, severe disappointment notwithstanding.
Certainly no one could argue with the production values. If "John Adams" doesn't make you feel like you-are-there (in Colonial Boston, aboard a heaving ship, among the doomed French aristos), then you need a bigger TV. But for such a glorious production to work true magic, you have to want to be there. And the roiling implacable gut-wrenching force of desire is something this "John Adams" strangely, and sorely, lacks.
When: Part 1, 8 to 9:10 p.m.; Part 2, 9:10 to 10:45 p.m. Sunday; regular time 9 p.m. Sundays
Rating: Part 1: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14); Part 2: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)