The History Channel describes their new miniseries: “SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary.” That’s quite an understatement. It’s like calling Godzilla a reptile of above-average stature.
I knew I was in for a doozy from the very start of last night’s first installment, when Samuel Adams escaped from a party of redcoats by bounding parkour-style across Boston’s rooftops. No wonder they made him twenty years younger and thirty pounds lighter than his historical counterpart. Can’t have the main character keeling over from cardiac arrest during a big chase sequence. Hey, if video games have taught us anything, it’s that the eighteenth century was all about aerial stunts.
The History Channel claims that one of the show’s aims is to “convey the personalities of the main characters.” If that’s true, they might want to head back to the drawing board. The two main protagonists, Sam Adams and John Hancock, share little in common with the historical figures other than their names.
J.L. Bell has weighed in on the problems with Adams’ depiction at his blog. As for Hancock, the miniseries portrays him as a dandy who’s quite uncomfortable walking into a tavern full of toughs. The real Hancock was indeed a stupendously wealthy man, certainly no stranger to fine clothes, lavish parties, and good wine. But he was also a man who, when informed that British regulars were en route to Lexington, brandished his gun and sword and swore up and down that he “would never turn my back on these troops.” It took the entreaties of Sam Adams and Paul Revere to convince him to escape.
It was instructive—and a little depressing—to follow the Twitter hashtag #SonsOfLiberty during the premiere. Most of the tweets I saw were pretty positive about the show. There were plenty of remarks about how modern politicians could learn a thing or two by watching real ‘Murican patriots on TV. I found these sentiments highly ironic, since the larger political issues surrounding the onset of the Revolution were actually absent from the first episode.
Instead, the miniseries emphasizes the personal aspects of the Whigs’ involvement. Adams and Hancock aren’t motivated by abstract notions of rights and liberties. They’ve got a beef with Hutchinson (promoted to governor in the first episode) over his meddling in their financial activities. When the mob attacks Hutchinson’s house, they do so because he’s persecuting Adams, not because of the Stamp Act. The premiere basically has the whole Revolution boiling down to a bunch of personal grudges. Personal conflicts certainly played a role in the Revolution, but the show de-emphasizes principles to such an extent that I can’t fathom why so many back-to-the-founding folks tweeted enthusiastically about it.
Many tweets ran something like this: “Psyched about #SonsOfLiberty bc I’m such a total history nerd LOL!!!1!11!” I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but if you were a “total history nerd,” you wouldn’t be so psyched about two hours of pure fiction. You’d be reading Pauline Maier.
You could fill pages on the show’s historical discrepancies, both major and minor. The chronology is hopelessly mangled. John Adams’ house looks nothing like the real thing, nor does it bear any resemblance to any intact eighteenth-century home I’ve ever seen. There’s far too much facial hair for the late 1700s. Gen. Gage was already in America during the events depicted in the series. You get the idea. For a detailed breakdown, check out Thomas Verenna’s episode-by-episode critique.
I think the only thing the first installment really got right was the sense of tension and volatility in Revolutionary-era Boston, a place where the streets roiled with passion and violence, where officials were sitting on top of a volcano that could erupt in revolt at any minute.
If I disliked the first episode so much, I’ll be skipping the other two, right? Yeah, I would…except I’ve always wanted to see Lexington and Concord on film. It’s the prospect of a few well-executed battle sequences that will bring me back to the TV, in spite of my better judgment. No doubt I’ll be disappointed, but not as disappointed as all those gals who watched the premiere will be when they do a Google Image search for Samuel Adams.