June 30, 2024
by Al Dickenson Also by this Author


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TELEVISION REVIEW: Franklin. Directed by Tim Van Patten. Written by Kirk Ellis and Howard Korder. Featuring Michael Douglas, Noah Jupe, Daniel Mays, and Eddie Marsan. Released April 12–May 17, 2024. Apple TV+.

Franklin, as a television miniseries, is well done. Rarely do we see this time period—the eighteenth century—televised. This eight-hour program has spectacular production value, good writing (if at times a bit sluggish), excellent acting, directing, and cinematography, and a stellar cast, grounded by none other than Michael Douglas, who embodies Benjamin Franklin well. For all these reasons, and more, Franklin should be added to your watch list.

What is bothersome about Franklin, is, unfortunately, the medium. There is significant truncation of time, politics, and persons in this program. Not only are individuals like Silas Deane completely omitted from the narrative, but other important events are either omitted or passed over with little or no attention given, even though they are highly deserved. Some elements are likewise added for dramatic effect (like the revelation of Bancroft’s treasonous behavior). Similarly, as this show is based on Stacy Schiff’s A Great Improvisation, I did anticipate a more careful correlation between book chapters and television episodes (especially given Schiff’s involvement in the program).

One aspect of the program I do wish there would be more attention paid to would be the war itself, both Britain’s and America’s perspectives. Yes, this show (and the book it’s based on) is about Benjamin Franklin (and, in reality, only a few years of his long, eventful life). However, a slightly more thorough approach to the Revolution would have been appreciated, at least to place eventful timelines and their significance. Franklin, in “Welcome, Mischief” and “Pride and Gout,” the second and third episodes, does this well by placing the importance of the Battle of Saratoga front and center. Indeed, as that is widely considered to be one of, if not the most important moments in the Revolutionary War, how could the show ignore it? But later in the season, in episode seven “Begin by Creeping,” there is only a cursory overview of the British surrender at Yorktown in the prologue. Surely the event that effectively ended the war and brought forth the Treaty of Paris talks would have warranted more than just a brief mention.
Though Franklin has its flaws, it does have a lot of good qualities as well. Perhaps one of the best aspects of the show is its ample use of French in dialogue. Little does more to immerse viewers into a place or time than utilizing another language. As such, Franklin does this well. Viewers are immediately placed in 1770s France, which lets us see Franklin’s perspective, whether jarred or curious or amicable.

The characterization of Franklin is also excellent. Michael Douglas does an wonderful job of portraying the intelligent, coy, and somewhat affable elder statesman and celebrity of his time. Similarly, the showrunners give viewers glimpses of Franklin’s life, like his relationship with his grandson William Temple Franklin (usually just called Temple), his romantic escapades, and his fondness for flatulence. It is safe to say that Douglas’ performance is the true standout aspect of this program, which coincides well with the fact that Franklin himself had a reputation for being the standout at any event he took part in.

But Douglas’ performance isn’t the only one worth mentioning: Daniel Mays plays a wonderfully compelling Edward Bancroft, for instance. Likewise, Eddie Marsan’s introduction effectively splits the series into two parts: an enjoyable but forgettable first half and a complex, character-driven, and conflict oriented second part. From the first moment Marsan appeared as John Adams, the tone of the series changed—and for the better, to be honest. Not only was there conflict between Franklin and the various Frenchmen (and a few women), but now there was conflict between Franklin and those by his side. The exploration of their relationship was absolutely one of the most compelling of the series.

Temple is perhaps the oddest aspect of the program. Though Noah Jupe should be praised for his performance, the writing of the character is somewhat confusing. Early in the series, he serves as the audience’s buffer for his grandfather’s exposition (and numerous witticisms – perhaps the best of which is in “Small Revenge.” Franklin, replying to a question posed about the French monarchy, said: “Lied misuer? We merely anticipated a future truth.”). In this role, Temple serves a purpose in Franklin. However, later on, he embarks on his own adventures, such as a failed attempt to join the French military and the exploration of several romantic affairs. None of this is a problem, per se, but it leaves the viewer wondering “why?” These sojourns have little relation to the broader plot of the program, save Temple’s fascination with (and later work within) the French court. This is just the largest of examples of the program perhaps needing a bit more refocusing in terms of character and action.

The series has a few interesting juxtapositions as well: in “The Natural State of Man,” an alliance between France and America is formed through strife and glory (Saratoga), but another alliance can be formed through marriage (Temple to Mademoiselle Cunegonde – though it ultimately falls through). The old-fashioned but notable tradition of peace meets the birth of a modern method. There is another interesting juxtaposition shown between Franklin and Adams. Adams sees his assignment in France as a waste of time unless immediate action is taken, while Franklin knows the processes of court and is not afraid to take things slow (which could be a juxtaposition in and of itself, given his usual appreciation for personal “industry”). Similarly, throughout the show, Franklin offers an interesting juxtaposition himself, showing a great reverence for the French monarchy while also despising the institution. The grey elements of these characters truly make them sing and remind us of what they really are—flawed human beings.
Ultimately, Franklin is a show about actors. Beyond the obvious heavily featured Pierre Beaumarchais, the famous playwright and supporter of the American cause, there is acting all throughout the program. Franklin acts as though he cares for the celebrity bestowed upon him and the airs of the French court. Temple acts on his affection for both women and glory. Bancroft acts in a manner befitting only the most competent spy, embracing the duality of his roles. Chaumont attempts to keep up appearances of his support for the American cause while being motivated by trade possibilities. There are undoubtedly other examples of this acting, but what it ultimately shows is that wars are won not only by the soldiers in the field, but also the events waged behind closed doors, often in the shadows, perhaps literal, or perhaps only in the mind.

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