#472: Sons of Liberty (2015)
History Channel miniseries liberates the American Revolution from historical accuracy, but at least it’s not got ancient aliens in it
Initial release: January 2015 (One season, three episodes)
Network: History Channel
In general we expect popular media to take some liberties for dramatic purposes when telling stories out of history. There’s a lot that we don’t know, can’t know, about historical events, save for what we’ve been able to piece together from surviving documents, art and oral traditions. But in general, we expect our period pieces to present the appearance of a thing, in other words accuracy isn’t as important as aesthetic.
So happy Fourth of July, let’s talk about History Channel’s silly miniseries about the American Revolution.
The producers of Sons of Liberty are upfront about the show’s intention as “historical fiction, not a documentary.” Which, okay, fair enough, there’s plenty of dry-ass documentaries with slow zooms on century-old paintings out there for the discerning history buff or lazy social studies teacher. But it seems they took that credo a bit too much to heart, as the show has more or less only the skeleton of the historical events, with striking disregard for what we know about most of the actual personages involved.
The big one is probably Sam Adams, who is the de facto protagonist of the series; portrayed as a rough, drunken tax-dodger, and like most of the rest of the cast played by a much younger man than the historical figure actually was at the time, it paints a somewhat unflattering picture of a man who accuses others of only being in the revolution for their own self-interest while he himself stirs up a revolution because he didn’t want to pay taxes. John Hancock also gets something of an uneasy treatment, but his character arc is overall more satisfying: initially a glad-handing rich prick more interested in making money than any lofty notions of liberty and freedom, he slowly grows into a true believer, eventually becoming the face of the Second Continental Congress.
To the show’s credit, Ben Franklin (played by Dean Norris, a curious choice but he makes it work) is pretty close to what we know about the man, that being that he was a brilliant diplomat but also a serious ladies’ man. But he’s the exception here, and that’s kind of the problem: the producers argued that they wanted to show these larger-than-life historical figures as the ordinary human beings they really were, which is all well and good, but their approach to it was to, essentially, develop a sort of Rome style soap opera. And while that show’s two seasons were a brilliant example of what happens when you allow a story to breathe versus what happens when you don’t, Sons of Liberty’s three eighty-minute episodes just plain can’t give even a wholly-fabricated historical drama the space it deserves, with the third episode in particular really jumping ahead quite a bit.
I talked about aesthetic earlier, and I’m willing to admit that the show rarely quite feels as cheap as it must have been to make; while it was filmed in Romania and had mostly Brits in the cast, its depiction of 18th century Boston feels appropriately claustrophobic and mazelike, the costumes are all pretty good, and the set design works for the show. What doesn’t work is the dialogue. Language does change over time, and it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect a close adherence to the particular cadence and word choices of a bygone era, but there’s a jarring modernity to the script that is probably the show’s single greatest flaw.
There are certainly worse productions about the American Revolution (limp Al Pacino vehicle Revolution for example;) and in spite of its flaws, Sons of Liberty does manage to be a good time at least some of the time, but if you’re looking for something to measure up to, say, HBO’s John Adams you’re probably going to be disappointed.
But disappointment is all part of the American experience, isn’t it?