The American Revolution has been re-enacted on film and video more than 130 times, according to the industry site IMDb, from the 1908 short The Spirit of '76, to The Devil's Disciple (1959) starring Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier, to the Mel Gibson vehicle The Patriot in 2008.
Could one more make a difference?
Yes, if it happens to be John Adams, HBO's profound, unflinching mini-series from 2008 featuring Paul Giamatti in the title role.
No such distinction attaches to Sons of Liberty, a three-part mini-series that will be shown on the cable channel History on consecutive nights Sunday through Tuesday.
Directed by industry veteran Kari Skogland (Liberty Stands Still, The Borgias) and featuring a fine cast of American and British thesps, the energetic, irreverent, and at times humorous six-hour drama is certainly not undistinguished, but it's no classic of the genre.
History buffs will have to peruse the series for inaccuracies. Like most Americans, my study of the revolution progressed no further than high school. And I must admit I was impressed by how Sons of Liberty tackled the historical events while also jazzing them up for viewers. (In a slightly dishonest move, the drama sexes up all the major revolutionaries by casting much younger men in the roles.)
The first and freshest episode is especially impressive. Set almost entirely in Boston, it opens in 1765, eight years before the Boston Tea Party, and it beautifully illustrates how much the revolution was inspired and driven by colonists' concrete economic concerns - and not merely abstract ideals about equality.
The story is narrated by the rough but idealistic Samuel Adams, who was then a 43-year-old local politician and tax collector. British hunk Ben Barnes (Dorian Gray, The Big Wedding), who is 33 but easily passes for 25, plays Adams as a roguish, charming ne'er-do-well.
The series plays up the tradition that he was a connoisseur of beer, if not an actual brewer. Barnes' Samuel practically lives in a tavern and always has a tankard of ale in his hand.
In a standard soap opera-ish backstory, we're told that Samuel acts like a wild 'n' crazy guy because he has been inconsolable since the 1757 death of his first wife. (The series neglects to mention that he had remarried in 1764.)
Adams sets the action ablaze when he refuses to collect taxes - his job - from folks who can't pay, running up a deficit of £8,000. When Thomas Hutchinson (Sean Gilder), governor of the province of Massachusetts, sends soldiers to arrest the miscreant, Adams seeks protection from a couple of street gangs. The tension that follows boils over, with gang members and assorted malcontents storming the governor's mansion.
The first installment goes on to chronicle the growing divide between Bostonians and the Crown, with a clever narrative move. It pairs Adams - who cares deeply for the poor - with his polar opposite, the ridiculously wealthy merchant John Hancock. Portrayed wonderfully by Rafe Spall as a bit of a dandy and a snob, Hancock is also opposed to the financial policies in the colony - but only because it threatens to affect his profits.
In a wonderful sequence, the two men devise a plan to unload Hancock's ships at night and sell his wares tax-free.
They set up an entire network of communication, transportation, and exchange - not to mention lookouts and spies - to get their goods moving. It's pretty much the same structure they will rely on a decade later for their revolution.
Sons of Liberty has a fairly good look, although it certainly doesn't match the production value of a blockbuster film. It does have some solid writing and a few strong performances, including Henry Thomas as Samuel's disapproving lawyer and cousin John Adams, Ryan Eggold as Samuel's supporter Joseph Warren, and Kevin Ryan as Redcoat captain John Pitcairn.
The two subsequent episodes do a good job of covering revolutionary history, if they do err in making the characters a little too sensational.
Cards are his friends
Playing cards "are like living, breathing human beings," says magician and actor Ricky Jay at the top of PBS' Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice, a one-hour documentary about the accomplished magician, conjurer, and actor premiering 9 p.m. Friday.
Adds Jay, "You can sit in a room with them for 10, 15 hours, and they become your friends. Particularly very lonely people."
A master of sleight-of-hand who seems capable of transforming the aces, kings, twos, threes, hearts, and diamonds in his hand into ballet dancers, Jay, 67, has performed for audiences since he was 4 or 5.
He also is well known for playing a rogues' gallery of assorted card-sharpers, con men, and thieves in several projects by writer-director David Mamet, including House of Cards and Redbelt. Mamet also has directed Jay's stage shows, including the smash hit Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants in the mid-1990s.
Part of PBS' American Masters series, the documentary tells Jay's story by examining his relationship with the various teachers, mentors, and heroes who helped him perform his craft, including his grandfather, amateur magician Max Katz, and pros Tony Slydini, Cardini, and Francis Carlyle.
We see Jay's heroes perform in archival footage and catch various parts of his acts.
Marvelous stuff for fans of magic - and who isn't a fan?
Sons of Liberty
9 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday on History.
Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice
9 p.m. Friday on WHYY TV-12.