The American Revolution: The TV Series

TV-test-patternA couple of weeks ago, the American History Guys at Backstory took on the issue of representations of history in film. Of most direct interest to those of us here at the Junto was the interview of Mark Peterson by Peter Onuf, asking why there were so few movies about the American Revolution, and why they were so terrible. The answer Peterson proffered was about patricide. The difficulty of evoking sympathy for the killing of a father figure that wasn’t manifestly evil led the British to be portrayed as caricatured villains – and even Hollywood audiences weren’t buying a tale so badly spun.

I wonder, though, if the real answer lies in the limitations of a 90-minute feature film. After all, “1776: The Musical” takes a small slice of the Revolution, and certainly takes historical liberties along the way, but overall portrays an entertaining yet challenging and moderately complicated version of the route to the Declaration of Independence. That might be easier when the key characters are Adams, Jefferson and Franklinthe audience already knows they are heroes, so there is less need to establish their charactersbut nevertheless, it shows that it’s possible to do something more advanced than the crude characterization of “The Patriot.” But it’s hard to create especially well-drawn characters and portray action and tie everything together in sufficient time to keep audiences interested in a movie theater.

Of course, the development of revolutionary historiography emphasizes just how complicated the story of the Revolution is. I can’t remember the exact quote or reference, but I remember early in graduate school reading an essay by (I think) Linda Kerber which concluded that no historian could any longer confidently write of ‘the’ American Revolution, but rather many different overlapping revolutions. A similar approach is inherent in the essays in the new Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution—whose contributors don’t even use a common periodization of the revolution (which, incidentally, I think is one of the book’s greatest strengths).

In my teaching, too, I try and emphasize the diversity of the revolutionary experience in Britain’s North American colonies. Not just from a perspective of difference between colonies, but between urban and rural communities, easterners and westerners, not to mention religious, ethnic, gender and class differences. Even though I strongly believe it is possible to tell a story of ‘the’ Revolution, it is a finely textured, complicated, and uneven story. My students have said they are surprised how complex my retelling of a familiar story is. To me, though, it is the complexityand indeed the unlikelihoodof a successful revolution that makes it such a compelling story, and that made researching the political history of the Revolution seem like a worthwhile enterprise.

Which brings me back to dramatizations of the American Revolution. The most compelling TV shows (“The West Wing,” “Friday Night Lights,” “The Wire”… you get the picture) of the last 15 years or so have all relied on a similar formulaa large cast of characters who all largely pull in the same direction, even as changes in circumstances affect them in divergent ways. A show that began in 1763 could easily portray a vast array of conflicting experiences, without having to rely either on hagiography or unthinking definitions of liberty. (Indeed, one of the strongest things that could be achieved from such an approach would be showing just how violent and coercive many of the key moments of revolutionary mobilization were). And there are clear models for the sort of approach that could be taken here. Speaking as someone who’s focused on Pennsylvania, Francis S. Fox’s Sweet Land of Liberty would tell a very human story about how the process of revolution affected a typical community. Ray Raphael’s account of Worcester County, Massachusetts, could work as wellor a hybrid account of much of the excellent work that has been done on the cast of characters who participated in Boston’s revolution.

All of this does make me have one final reflection, though. Because as I was thinking through the idea of a multi-part series on the American Revolution, my mind naturally turned to the HBO’s “John Adams.” It’s not particularly original to observe there’s a disconnect between the stories about the Revolution that find a popular audience, and the stories of the Revolution prevalent within the academy. To me, the multi-layered story with a diverse cast of characters is far more compelling than a story told through the primary lens of one actor. When there are so many good models for how this might be done, why are our options for the American Revolution as light entertainment so poor?

9 responses

  1. Have you seen the Middlemarch Films documentary miniseries LIBERTY!: THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION? It seems to have done what you would suggest be done.

    • I thought they did a great job on “Liberty!” but I think Ken is looking for dramatic entertainment rather than another documentary series. I agree with Ken that a show focused on a single community (whether real or fictive)–ideally set just outside of a city–would be a fantastic idea. The only problem with that though is that if you choose Boston you would have a very eventful story up until about 1775 and then everything important would be happening elsewhere. Same thing for Philly but before 1775. Perhaps you could tell the story of a family in which the young son is a soldier, which would allow going back and forth between the war theatres and the community. Either way, there’s tons of options, which is exactly Ken’s point.

      As far as audience, I suspect there could be a huge audience for something like this if you marketed it right (with just a hint of Whiggishness), going by the size of the readership of popular works on the period.

  2. The best cable shows often have a community-study feel to them anyway. Besides The Wire, there are shows like Deadwood, Weeds, The Sopranos, Big Love, Mad Men, even The Walking Dead — each of these is, one way or another, a layered and complex (if sensationalized) picture of a community in a specific time and place. For that matter, even a colonial version of Downton Abbey, terrible as that is from a historical standpoint, could get at some of what seems to be missing from Hollywood’s treatments of the Revolution.

  3. Steven Spielburg produced a tv mini-series called “Into the West” (2005) that chronicles the journey(s) of the Wheeler family and their divergent offspring from 1825-1890. The series presents the audience with multiple interwoven narratives that reflect both the joys and tragedies of men, women, all social classes, and multiple ethnicities in the wake of 19th-century westward expansion. I found the show compelling and informative, and would love to see a similar format used to (re)tell the lesser-known stories of the American Revolution.

  4. Why not a program with a counter revolutionary perspective. A colonist who’s reviled by the movement who provides a narrative against the revolution. Someone who’s not a paper villain but a sympathetic person trying to maintain the world they know. Also they needn’t be from the feted ruling class but more on order of (as suggested by Jonathon) characters of Deadwood, The Sopranos, or The Wire. Deadwood was a fascinating counter narrative to the triumphalist, innocent pioneer story.

    • I imagine that would be a hard pitch and even harder sell. That said, there’s no reason you couldn’t have sympathetic loyalist characters in a show that otherwise focused on “patriots.”

      • Counter revolutionary was a poor choice of words. Many have described the populace, generally speaking, as divided into 3 parts loyalist, revolutionary and for lack of better word, status quo or non of the above. I was thinking of this third element as represented by a merchant or a brigand who viewed the revolution as a threat to their business. It might be an opportunity to provide a perspective infrequently shown. Yeah, a hard sell, but aren’t they all?

  5. I think, because it was our founding moment, writers get stuck trying to explain too much. It’s difficult to step back from a moment like that and create something light hearted. And in the end, they get bogged down in the details and ruin the entertainment.

  6. I just finished the book, Sweet Land of Liberty by Francis S. Fox. Great depiction of rural life during the time of the American revolution. I always thought this subject matter would make a great cable series centered around life in a particular area. There’s a lot that could be taught and learned about life and history from 1750 to 1850.


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