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HBO's Adams family is a revolutionary concept

Cold comfort: John and Abigail Adams kept their fires burning.

Premiering: Sunday, March 16th, 7 p.m. (central) with a second episode from 8:10 to 9:45 p.m. Continuing on Sundays at 8 p.m. through April 30th
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, David Morse, Stephen Dillane, Zeljko Ivanek, Danny Huston, Justin Theroux, Guy Henry, Rufus Sewell, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Sarah Polley
Produced by: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman
Directed by: Tom Hooper

A John Adams action figure wouldn't do all that much.

Squat, plain-faced and pudgy, he rose to the top of the late 1770s charts without being an adventurer, a war hero, an inventor or very colorful. The nation's first vice president and second president didn't cast a long shadow and constantly felt overshadowed. Go fly a kite? But alas, Ben Franklin beat him to that, too.

Then along came eminent historian David McCullough.

His mega-selling 2001 John Adams biography has 2.7 million copies in print and counting. It put Adams back on the American map as an under-appreciated man of ideas whose armor was the courage of his convictions. Now HBO is weighing in with a sumptuously produced, seven-part John Adams miniseries -- "He United the States" -- from the high-wattage team of Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman (HBO's exemplary Band of Brothers).

Its first two chapters, premiering Sunday, March 16th and running from 7 to 9:45 p.m. (central), accentuate the title character's unbending will and enduring love of his devoted, yet strong-willed wife. John and Abigail Adams (Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney) are the essential sugar and spice of an elongated epic that has next to no physical action in the first four chapters sent for review.

Even the Revolutionary War is fought almost entirely off camera. We see some of the after-effects, but none of the big battles themselves. Instead, John Adams is off in Paris for most of Chapter 3, barely enduring the powdered faces and heavy lipstick of effete French royalty while trying to enlist their help in the war effort.

Nonetheless, John Adams is stirring in many respects, beginning with its big, bold and invigorating theme music. The hook's already well-baited before we begin on a wintry and very dark Boston night in the year 1770.

Attorney John Adams is returning home to Abigail after a courtroom joust that once again took him on the road.

"You lost," says she.

"I did," says he.

"I could tell by the set of your shoulders."

Another case immediately presents itself, though. There's rioting in the streets and firing by a group of occupying British soldiers. Five Bostonians are dead, but were the Brits provoked to act in self defense?

Adams takes up their thankless defense, angering his cousin, Samuel Adams (Danny Huston) centuries before he became a beer. Roughly the first two-thirds of Sunday's opening chapter are devoted to this case, with John Adams standing steadfastly behind the sanctity of the law before his planned closing summation is gently reproached by Abigail.

"You have overburdened your argument with ostentatious erudition," she tells him. It's a shame people don't talk that way anymore.

Chapter 1 also includes a bit of full frontal male nudity during a tar-and-feathering that Adams calls "barbarism." This studied man of "prudence and probity" soon is off to Philadelphia on "a plain horse for a plain man." He's been appointed to the newly formed Continental Congress, which means a long separation from Abigail and their three children, with whom he's often a short-tempered taskmaster. On this occasion, though, Adams musters a jaunty "Bye, ya little pumpkins," before riding off to the sound of swelling music.

George Washington towers over John Adams on Inauguration Day.

Philadelphia brings the other heavy-hitting Founding Fathers into play during an oft-rousing Chapter 2.

Ben Franklin, who later will greatly vex Adams, is well-played by Britisher Tom Wilkinson in convincing makeup. Even more striking is modest, short-spoken George Washington, with former St. Elsewhere co-star David Morse barely recognizable as a virtual replica of the guy we see almost daily on the dollar bill.

Less imposing is Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence. "I have no gift for oratory," he tells Adams, who's far more skilled with the spoken word.

He almost meets his equal in pacifistic John Dickinson (Zeljko Ivanek), who steadfastly opposes war with -- or independence from -- the ruling British. Ivanek, so terrific in FX's recent Damages series, excels anew in a role that eventually renders him a man at sea.

John Adams also regularly returns to the home front, where Abigail remains a force in her own right. Chapter 2 includes her decision to have the family inoculated from rampaging small pox by having a doctor implant the virus in a primitive and queasy way. It's quite a scene, but not for the weak of stomach.

Linney as Abigail makes an overall stronger impression than Giamatti as her spouse. His performance is solid for the most part, even if it's sometimes hard not to think of him as Mr. Magoo in a variety of wigs. Giamatti's pained, almost weepy reactions also can be semi-comical at times. But he rises to those occasions when laudatory oratory is required.

Morse in turn seems almost mummified as Washington. At the same time, though, he communicates dignity, resolve and reserve. Wilkinson makes Franklin the playboy of the group, particularly during his one-upping sojourn in Paris with the chafing Adams.

"We are all actors here, Mr. Adams," he proclaims. "And so far, my performance has been well-received."

The third chapter in Paris is the miniseries' squishy midsection, though. It regains a firmer footing in Chapter 4, with Abigail at last joining her husband in France before they then journey to England in deference to John's appointment as his new nation's first ambassador.

In the line of those duties, he must bow repeatedly to King George III in their inaugural meeting on the latter's turf. It's a very memorable scene, with Giamatti pulling it off perfectly.

By the end of Chapter 4, the Adamses are back in the States, where their now grown children struggle to reconnect with a physically and emotionally distant father. He's both unyielding with oldest son John Quincy (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and a bit blue about being outvoted for president, even though he knows that Washington clearly is the man for the job.

John Adams succeeds in these first four chapters as a compelling drama built largely on big ideas and bold assertions of same. But its heart and soul come from the steadfast and timeless love of an oft-absent husband and a stalwart wife.

She died of typhoid fever at age 73. He endured until age 91, expiring on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

The power of those partings is yet to be experienced by either reviewers or viewers. But John Adams already has shown that it won't fall short when those times are at hand.

Grade: A-minus