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The Miniseries: A History Lesson

History has lessons to teach, and fascinating stories to tell. That edict applies to HBO's wonderful miniseries drama John Adams—and to the history of the TV miniseries as well.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by David McCullough, John Adams (which premiered its first two episodes on March 16) is a seven-part drama about one of our founding fathers. One of its executive producers is Tom Hanks, whose passion for multi-part historical TV dramas is impressive, given such previous HBO works as Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon.

Paul Giamatti stars as Adams, and Laura Linney plays his devoted and influential wife, Abigail. Standout supporting players include Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin, Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson and David Morse as George Washington. Kirk Ellis adapted McCullough's book, and director Tom Hooper—whose recent stellar work includes HBO's Longford and Elizabeth I—does another vibrant job.

Hooper includes some epic set pieces: a hot-air balloon ascent in France, a naval battle in the mid-Atlantic and the inauguration of George Washington. Yet most of the scenes, and many of the best ones, are intimate. There's John and Abigail sharing one of their few precious moments alone; or Adams and his fellow politicians meticulously debating every word and thought driving them away from British rule and toward independence.

One of the real stars of John Adams is the vocabulary. The ideas—lofty, thoughtful, still vital—are among its most important co-stars. Giamatti and Linney deserve major credit, but they're buttressed by astounding words and sentiments. Getting to know these figures, and this history, through the medium of television is an absolute pleasure.

But there's also a history lesson regarding this TV genre. Like our nation's formative period, it deserves to be treasured. The miniseries form is one of the things television does best, and for the broadcast networks to have abdicated interest during the past decade is a short-sighted, regrettable, self-defeating mistake.

The miniseries allows for more time than a motion picture, yet provides the finality of a novel rather than an ongoing series. “You have the luxury to explore nuances,” screenwriter Ellis says simply, and something like John Adams is much more likely to be received and embraced as an event than, say, the latest cycle of Big Brother. Yet economics are strangling the former in place of the latter, and broadcast TV is poorer for it.

The John Adams story was first told in miniseries form in 1976, when PBS took note of the Bicentennial to present a 13-hour adaptation of The Adams Chronicles. (George Grizzard played John Adams.) And in 1974, CBS presented a six-hour biography of Benjamin Franklin. Ten years later, when the broadcast network miniseries was approaching its zenith, CBS devoted eight hours to George Washington, starring Barry Bostwick as the American soldier and statesman.

What happened to the prestige miniseries? The networks, chasing the golden goose that hatched mammoth ratings for Roots, The Thorn Birds and Winds of War (all from ABC, by the way), made too many of them, too many poor ones, and let the genre wither on the vine.

Once audiences began to dwindle, financing big-budget miniseries became risky. If the first episode tanked, a network was stuck. They could have focused on making the best dramas they could, and targeting their resources. Instead, they slowly tiptoed away from the game, letting cable pick up the slack, where both the economics and rewards are measured differently.

It's a shame, and it ought to be corrected. Twenty years ago, broadcast TV presented superb miniseries such as NBC's The Murder of Mary Phagan, starring Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey; ABC's War & Remembrance; and, imported by some (but not all) public television stations, the best miniseries ever written expressly for television, Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective.

That was 1988. Where are the broadcast TV miniseries now? So far this year, except for the Jane Austen adaptations on the PBS anthology Masterpiece, there's nothing. And that's a damned shame.

They do make miniseries like they used to. John Adams is one of them. It's just that “they,” these days, means cable. Good for cable. Bad for broadcast.