'Sons of Liberty' Review: Samuel Adams, Superhero!

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James), Sam Adams (Ben Barnes) and John Hancock (Rafe Spall)
Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James), Sam Adams (Ben Barnes) and John Hancock (Rafe Spall)

I wanted to make fun of Sons of Liberty. The trailer for the three-night History Channel series was like a Saturday Night Live parody: zooming close-ups with captions of the main players—“Sam Adams: The Instigator”! “Ben Franklin: The Womanizer”! This is history as a joke, right?

Well, yes and no. Sons of Liberty, which begins its run Sunday night, turns out to be a fast-paced, fact-packed trot through the early days of the American Revolution. If I was a young kid, I’d probably be inspired by its fist-swinging Paul Revere, its amusingly foppish John Hancock, and, yes, its swinging ladies-man Ben Franklin, played by Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris with a swagger that contradicts the old image of Ben as a guy wearing granny glasses flying a kite to discover something about electricity.

As directed by Kari Skogland with her own visual version of bullish swagger, SoL makes a key decision early on: Rather than present the instigators of Boston revolution as thinkers who sat around pondering their options, they’re handsome young men (and they are 99% men in this production) who dash around tweaking and defying stiff-moving, red-suited British soldiers, punching and shooting their way to freedom.

In this telling of the tale, brew maker Sam Adams, played by The Chronicles of Narnia’s Ben Barnes as an antsy rake who resents having to pay both taxes and fealty to the British Crown led by King George III. He’s a hothead who prods his more thoughtful cousin, John Adams (played by E.T.’s Henry Thomas), to consider rebellion as a political strategy.

Barnes’ Sam is SoL’s central hero, but the miniseries’ scene-stealer is British actor Rafe Spall playing John Hancock as a fluttery man of privilege who’s drawn into revolution reluctantly, after his property is seized by the cartoonishly evil General Thomas Gage (Marton Csokas). Spall’s line-readings are highly amusing; by lowering his voice to a constant murmur, you listen to him more closely than you do the braying Sam Adams, and Hancock’s drawn-out declaration—“I’m verrry good at mmmmmmaking mmmmmoney”--is one of the high points of the series.

Sons of Liberty, written by Stephen David and David C. White, takes a lot of freedom with the way the protagonists talk, unconcerned about letting modern slang and phrases creep in. “I’m in,” says Hancock when he decides to join the rebels. “He’s intense,” Sam observes of George Washington, played by Irish actor Jason O’Mara with, indeed, clenched-jaw intensity. Norris’ Franklin is a cooler customer, seen mostly overseas in England, debating the British on the finer points of American resentment.

Sons of Liberty is certainly hokey—when John Adams says, “It has to end now,” you know Sam Adams’ line before he says it (“This is just the beginning!”). I could moan about how the History Channel is betraying scholarship, but you really ought not to turn to TV for history lessons anyway. What you get with Sons of Liberty is rowdy fun that ends with us Americans overthrowing foreign oppression. Who can’t get behind that?