February 7, 2024

What I've been watching: Winter edition

Shows I’ve Watched:
Shows I've Added:
The Adams Chronicles
The Defenders
Harbor Command
The Protectors

You're probably wondering what I've been watching lately. Or maybe not; I'd like to think that some of you have more interesting things to do than that. But let's face it; you've been coming here for years, and there's no mystery what this site is all about, so you've had fair warning. 

The Adams Chronicles—the story of the Adams political family over a 150-year span—was PBS's bicentennial birthday present to America, and if one gets something of a melancholy feeling while watching it, it's not merely because we seem so far away from what the Founding Fathers had envisioned—in fact, one could suggest that the times we live in today are, in a sense, the culmination of that vision for America. But more about that later. 

No, for all the hoopla that accompanied the 200th anniversary of the nation's founding, those of us who were around at the time recall that these were not necessarily the best of times in 1976. We were only a couple of years removed from Watergate; the country remained divided over Vietnam, even though our participation in the war had ended; and we were in the process of finding out a lot of things about America that we didn't know—or perhaps didn't want to know.

And so, when The Adams Chronicles debuted in January of 1976, it attempted to present not only a history lesson, telling the story of our nation's first 150 years through the eyes of one of America's greatest political families, it also sought to remind us of the fragility of our political system, from those early days to the present. It will be up to the people, it overtly tells us, to ensure that this great experiment will not only survive but thrive in the generations to come—but only if we are vigilant, holding not only our leaders accountable, but ourselves. Given the times, there's no doubt what the producers had in mind.

The story begins with young John Adams (George Grizzard, in the role of his lifetime), a struggling Boston lawyer whose twin passions for politics and his wife Abagail are the driving force behind the first half of the miniseries' twelve episodes. We see Adams in all his defining and conflicting roles: a seeker of justice who defends the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre on a matter of principle; a patriot dedicated to the independence cause when the Crown leaves him with no alternative; a most undiplomatic diplomat, parlaying with European nations to fund the war effort without selling out the nation's freedom; a devoted family man, professing a desire for the simplicity of the farm yet unwilling to turn away from his duty to the country, which causes him to spend years away from home at Philadelphia and then the capitals of Europe. 

He is at once principled and vain, refusing to seek office but only too eager to make himself available when opportunity comes calling. His unshakable belief in his nation and in himself leads him first to the vice presidency (under George Washington), and then, after Washington declines a third term, to the presidency itself—an office he which he holds for only four years before being defeated by Thomas Jefferson, once a close friend but now a bitter rival. Jefferson doesn't come across very well in this rendition of history, appearing as an opportunist, a man for whom the political is personal, with a vision of America that clashes violently with that of Adams.*

*Nor does Benjamin Franklin, who comes across as shifty and untrustworthy, often putting his own vanity—which was even greater than Adams's—ahead of the interests of his country

Adams's legacy, both personal and political, dominates the series, even after the old man's death, as his descendants try to live up not only to his standards as an Adams, but his legacy of service to America. The closest to approach that legacy was perhaps his eldest son John Quincy (William Daniels, who played John Adams in the movie 1776), who follows in his father's footsteps both as Minister to Great Britain and, eventually, the presidency, although whereas John Adams helped author the Declaration of Independence, John Quincy had to be satisfied as the architect of the Monroe Doctrine while serving as Monroe's Secretary of State. Like his father, he is destined to serve only one term; unlike the elder Adams, who contented himself (if any Adams could ever be said to be content) in the role of elder statesman, Quincy returned to politics after his defeat, with a long career in the U.S. House of Representatives, and an increasingly visible role in the anti-slavery movement.

The scene then shifts to Quincy's youngest son, Charles Francis (Thomas Stewart), who continues the family tradition of diplomatic service as Minister to Great Britain, where he helps to keep European nations out of involvement in the American Civil War. He, too, might have become president, had he been willing to seek it out, but he refused to do so, believing that an active campaign for the presidency would be demeaning to the office and to himself. He becomes the patriarch of the family upon Quincy's death, overseeing the growth of his two sons, Henry (Peter Brandon) and Charles Francis II (Charles Siebert). Both sons eschew elective politics; Henry becomes a historian and author, posthumously winning the Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, and authoring the best-selling novel Democracy, although he wasn't revealed as the author until after his death. Francis, in the meantime, makes his mark in the world of business, becoming president of the Union Pacific railroad, an endeavor in which he ultimately failed; he watches in dismay the growth of populism, and laments the loss of power and influence by landowners. (Well, nobody's perfect.) 

As the miniseries concludes, Henry and Charles stand together, looking at a portrait of the great patriarch of the family, John Adams, and wondering what he would have thought of them; although they often felt they had failed in living up to his legacy, they conclude that maybe they'd done all right after all. And so there, in four paragraphs and twelve one-hour episodes, we have the story of the first century-and-a-half of the United States of America. 

Any story of the Adams family would be incomplete, however, without the Adams women, most notably Abigail (played by Kathryn Walker as a younger woman and Leora Dana in her later years), who was the perfect mate for John, and one of the great women in all of American history. Of all the Adams women, it is she who understands not only what it means to be an Adams, but an American; only a woman with that knowledge, self-confidence, and power of mind could possibly have put up with the often insufferable John for so many years. (She stands in marked contrast to, for example, Henry's wife Minnie (Patricia Elliott), who suffered from mental illness and eventually took her own life after the death of her beloved father.) Their love story is a marvel in and of itself.

About the miniseries itself, since presumably you haven't come here solely for a history lesson: it was nominated for 20 Emmys and won four, including Lead Actress for Kathryn Walker. Watching it is a strange and somewhat dated experience, though. There is very little incidental music other than that heard at diplomatic receptions, and during the opening and closing credits, which may enhance the feeling that one is watching a stage production, but can leave a somewhat sterile taste in the mouth. It was shot entirely on videotape, which echoes the feel of the old Hallmark Hall of Fame, but extending the use of tape to the exterior scenes diminishes the impact; such scenes can feel too much as if they were shot against a green screen. They wasn't, of course, but that's the way it often is with video: what works well in the studio often fails in the wide-open spaces. British television had, at the time, made a habit of using film for exterior shooting while retaining tape for studio shots, but I can see how that transition, which (to be honest) was always a little disturbing to me in shows like Doctor Who, was probably not favored for American television audiences. Filming the whole thing was probably cost-prohibitive for PBS.

And about that: The Adams Chronicles should not be considered as merely an adjunct to Masterpiece Theatre*. Although it has the look and the scope of a British limited series, it isfittingly, in my opinionan all-American project, made by PBS, with American actors. There is no host, a la Alistair Cooke; instead, the stage-setting is done in voiceover by actor Michael Tolan.

*In fact, when public television began the practice of importing British series (which resulted eventually in Masterpiece Theatre), they were criticized by some, including many NET affiliates, for stunting the growth of American-made drama. You'll note that PBS has done very few American projects of this scope since; most of their drama programming is done as a co-production with the BBC or other British networks.

So if one were to make an epic of the great American family without resorting to fiction (Captains and the Kings, for instance), one need only turn to the Adams family, without whom there may well not have been an America. And that brings me to that point I brought up at the start: Was America destined to wind up this way?

It seems unthinkable at first, and it's difficult to really know for sure, but in setting out to establish a republic, the Founders—men of the Enlightenment, though they rejected a monarchy and embraced republicanismwere treading on some very slippery groundlook at revolutionary France, for instance, and remember that Jefferson was a supporter of the French Revolution, if not the extremity of the subsequent Terror. The Founders were quite resolved that America should be a republic, rather than a democracy; the attitude of Charles Francis II toward the prospect of power transitioning from old-line families to "the people" testifies to that. In establishing the constitutional duties of the presidency, Adams was well aware that it had been shaped to fit George Washington, and worried about how it could be abused by a president lacking Washington's integrity. And then, of course, there was Franklin's pronouncement, when asked by Elizabeth Willing Powel what kind of a country the Constitutional Convention had created, replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." 

So where does that leave us? Well, the Roman Republic fell, eventually; a historian as learned as Henry Adams was well aware of that. The Founders themselves considered the United States to be the great American Experiment, and not every experiment succeeds. There's no doubt that if John Adams and his immediate descendants could see what the country has become today, they'd be appalled. Would they consider that it had, in some way, been inevitable?

I don't know if that question can be answered. I do know, however, that if we, as a nation, continue to behave more like the Addams Family than the Adams Family, we won't have long to find out. TV  


  1. I would love to hear what you think of The Protectors. Was it the 1964 or the Gerry Anderson one you were watching?
    I'm also a bit chuffed that as I was reading this I kept thinking of The Addams Family and so glad you were as well and it wasn't just me.
    Over here we remember that time we tried being a republic and it was terrible.

    1. It's the 1964 version. I'll cover it more in depth next time I do one of those "What I've Been Watching" pieces, but the TL:DR on it is that I liked Ian Faulds' character a lot, didn't like Michael Atkinson that much, and thought Ann Morrish was OK but could be annoying. The stories that featured Faulds were, I thought, much more interesting. Would have been nice to see what would have happened had production not been cut short.

  2. I too would like to see his take on The Protectors. I had never seen the show until it turned up on Amazon Prime a few years back. I thought it was a fun way to waste 30 minutes of your life. It seemed a collection of action scenes in search of a story.

    1. Although it was the 1964 version we watched, I am intending to check out the later version with Robert Vaughn, et al. I'm always looking at fun ways to waste 30 minutes - or even 60 minutes!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!