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What does it mean to be free?

The life of America's elusive Founding Father provides a compelling narrative

<strong>John Adams</

When John Adams (Saturdays, 5.30pm) was first screened in America in March this year, there was some controversy over casting. Critics were agreed about Laura Linney, who plays Abigail, Adams's clever and collected wife: what an elegant performance, they said, heaving a collective sigh of admiration. But of Paul Giamatti, who plays Adams himself, they were less adoring. Much less.

They complained about his Mr Potato Head features, and worried that his performance - all sidelong glances and anxious frowns - was too laboured to capture the contradictions of Adams's personality which, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on which this miniseries is based, was "high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed and fiercely stubborn". Viewers who hadn't read the biography - which is to say, the vast majority of viewers - would be puzzled by this version of Adams, so cute and so homely, and yet so prone to shouting at his small sons: "Remove yourself, sir!"

This fuss was not really about Giamatti, or his performance; he is just fine in the role and, last month, picked up an Emmy for it (the HBO series was nominated for 23, and won 13). My hunch - and I suggest this very respectfully - is that they were secretly uncomfortable with the idea of an actor who made his name playing the Great American Loser, in films such as American Splendor and Sideways, inhabiting the persona of the Great American.

Even in difficult times, America is always a little in love with itself, and Giamatti's presence is a prick to the balloon of mythology that this series is otherwise mostly happy to inflate. This is not to say that John Adams is not worth watching unless you seriously have the hots for US patriotism, because it absolutely is.

Historical inaccuracies apart - even I know that Adams the principled lawyer did not secure acquittals for all the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre - the writing is restrained, and the performances are superb (in particular, Tom Wilkinson's randy Benjamin Franklin and Danny Huston's Samuel Adams, a sight for sore eyes and no mistake).

As for the look of the thing, staring at all that snow, all those sepulchral panelled bedrooms, is enough to bring on chilblains even as you sit in your centrally heated home in front of your widescreen television. Only the Puritans and their descendants could have put up with this hardship, this isolation, and still thought of the country they had left behind as Egypt and of what eventually became America as a new Israel.

What I love about the series most, I must admit, is that it depicts Americans before they got so soppy, before group hugs and Oprah Winfrey. When John Adams stood for president - he succeeded George Washington - he did not get his wife to sum up publicly his lovable and brilliant character; nor did he wheel on his children for the delectation of the electorate at an hour when they should really have been in bed. He went back to his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts and contemplated his corn.

But I'm running away with myself. All this is some weeks down the line. For the moment, it has been established that our hero is a decent man, and a wise one. Having first worried about revolutionary barbarism, he is now convinced that the citizens of Massachusetts and other American colonies are being taxed unfairly by the British king. I left him as he departed for the Continental Congress of 1774, at which I guess we will see him rehearsing the arguments for independence.

I don't need to tell you that this is a good time for Americans and for us, their allies, to be thinking about all this stuff. So if you stick with just one series this year, let this be it. John Adams wants to reassess the role of this most elusive of America's Founding Fathers, but its secondary and more compelling narrative has to do with what freedom means, how hard it is won and how easily lost.

When you think about the series this way, it doesn't matter if, as one American critic put it, Giamatti looks, in 18th-century britches and wig, like Shrek. This is, in spite of its title, an ensemble piece; Adams was one of several, and what he and his countrymen fought for drips away daily, like New England icicles in the spring thaw.

Pick of the week

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The American Future: a History by Simon Schama
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Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power