An all-stops-out epic extravaganza on John Adams, the gnome president? That sounds like overkill. Ah, but it's based on David McCullough's 2001 biography, which, in hardback and paperback, spent nearly three years on the New York Times bestseller list and has gone through 65 printings, totaling 2.7 million copies.

In its own way, HBO's

John Adams

, premiering tonight, is what TV folks call "pre-sold," just like

Oprah's Big Give.

A lot of people (at least in the HBO-subscriber world) know about it and are curious. Which hasn't stopped the network from selling some more. Ads and promos for this miniseries are everywhere.

The monumental production is worth bragging about. Start with the pristine pedigree: produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman (

Band of Brothers

) for $100 million, directed by Tom Hooper (



Elizabeth I

) and written by Kirk Ellis (

Into the West


I didn't see the kitchen sink, but eloquent elocution abounds, as wig-powder dusts the precisely decorated period rooms. There's even a spirited naval battle, awash with cannon and blood, to punctuate the mud-choked colonial bustle and pestilence, ultra-lavish get-togethers in the French and English courts, and everything in between. Two million feet of film, 250,000 cobblestones, 40,000 pieces of wardrobe, 5,700 extras and 1,500 wigs, says the HBO publicity.

The acting's no salt fish and hominy, either. Paul Giamatti takes Adams from conniving little bully of the Continental Congress to feverish foreigner at death's door in Amsterdam and back again. Laura Linney shimmers as his steadfast wife, Abigail, and there's super support everywhere. Twice Oscar-nominated (

In the Bedroom


Michael Clayton

), Tom Wilkinson may be the best Ben Franklin yet.

The show begins tonight at 8 p.m. in the dark Boston winter of 1770. The lighting gets better fast, as the sprawling film quickly and dramatically demonstrates Adams' love of bombast and the limelight, as well as his rigorous rectitude. Two installments run tonight, until about 10:45. Others follow, about an hour each, every Sunday at 9 p.m. through April 20, as well as all over the place at other times on HBO and its outlets.

I'm no historian, but I do know TV and entertainment commerce, and I suspect that if you dialed back Adams' significance in the order of things by about 15 percent from what's presented here, you'd be closer to the truth.

He's the forgotten Founding Father, in Europe furthering American goals during the Continental Congress, and you've got a way better chance of hitting the jackpot with a fresh book or show about him than dredging up George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Franklin all over again.


John Adams

is about so much more than its title. The tenuousness of life and nationhood in the colonies is elegantly demonstrated over and over, including a gruesomely realistic scene documenting colonial smallpox inoculation techniques. Judging more than two centuries on, we forget that, but for a failed speech here or a rickety ferry that stayed afloat there, this continent would be a very different place.

If Pennsylvania (


' Zeljko Ivanek is brilliant in the role of appeaser John Dickinson) and New York had prevailed, the Declaration of Independence might have been the Declaration of Interdependence. If Ben Franklin had not been the Paris Hilton of Paris, France, an über-celebrity in a raffish fur cap whose presence guaranteed the success of any party, England might have won the Revolutionary War.

Adams was less of a success in the overstuffed, kabuki-among-the-opulent world of France's Louis XVI, so gloriously rendered here. Giamatti portrays him plainspoken and toadlike and banished to the Netherlands, where things go even worse.

But in one of the finest scenes you'll ever see on television, Adams, America's first ambassador to the English court, has an audience with King George III, played by Tom Hollander (

Pirates of the Caribbean

's dastardly Cutler Beckett), the oppressive engine that pushed the Revolution. A plain fat man with difficulties scraping low, a foppish monarch who lost to the ragamuffins, both men loathe their positions in the meeting, but somehow soldier through for the benefit of both their constituencies.

Philadelphia was the center of much of the goings-on back then, and Comcast and HBO even held a big soiree to celebrate the show last week at the National Constitution Center. But, alas, no money for our fair city in the making of

John Adams

. A reported $80 million was generated instead in Virginia, where Colonial Williamsburg and its environs were dressed up to play the states, and a back lot near Richmond filled in for Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Hungarian locales subbed for England, France and Holland.

Critics received the first four episodes, which end with George Washington being sworn in as the first president. (Helped by a nose job, local boy David Morse is just right, a ramrod of humble honor, throughout the miniseries.) The first vice president, Adams, nine inches shorter, buzzes around out of place and barely visible, a Zelig at the grand occasion.

He'll gain and lose stature (politically, if not physically) a time or two more until his death 35 years later, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. An elitist one-term president from a vanished political party, who tried desperately to silence his critics (newspapermen were thrown in jail), Adams left reasons to not be remembered.

But after this TV extravaganza, it's doubtful he'll be forgotten ever again.

Jonathan Storm:


John Adams

Tonight at 8

on HBO