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Neal Justin: 10 TV shows about the Founding Fathers that are more fun than Apple’s ‘Franklin’

By Neal Justin, Star Tribune
Published: April 15, 2024, 6:05am

Benjamin Franklin was an inventor, diplomat and publisher. The one thing he wasn’t was boring. So it’s kind of shocking to report that “Franklin,” a limited series now streaming on Apple TV+, is about as tedious as flying a kite on a windless day.

Michael Douglas is wasted in the title role, puttering around France during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, trying to convince authorities to come to America’s rescue. The Oscar winner, so lively as Liberace in HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra” and in Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method,” seems uninspired by his title character’s task. He only comes to life when it’s time to lust over women swooning at his feet.

Franklin and the other Founding Fathers were fascinating figures, but television has rarely done them justice. We were able to come up with a few suggestions that turn history lessons into riveting adventures.

  1. “Family Ties” (1985): In a Season 3 gem, Alex (Michael Keaton) dreams he’s a stable boy who has to goad an easily distracted Thomas Jefferson into finishing the Declaration of Independence. Young Keaton convinces Jefferson to sub “pretty darn clear” for “self-evident.” Pluto, Paramount+
  2. “The Simpsons” (1990): One could argue that the animated series’ golden period started with the Season 2 premiere, “Bart Gets an F.” Our favorite loafer needs to pass a test on colonial history or repeat fourth grade. A fantasy sequence with the Continental Congress saves his rubbery neck. Hulu, Disney+
  3. “Liberty! The American Revolution” (1997): Twin Cities Public Television won a Peabody for producing this six-episode series that covers a lot of incidents overlooked in most textbooks, like the Olive Branch Petition and the Battle of Brandywine Creek. YouTube
  4. “The Crossing” (2000): Jeff Daniels went from “Dumb & Dumber” to tough and tougher in his role as a George Washington who could give Indiana Jones a run for his money. The movie zeroes in on the general’s bold attempt to get to Trenton via the Delaware River, a route that travel agents in the 1770s rarely recommended. YouTube
  5. “Liberty’s Kids” (2002-03): This animated series is the perfect primer for youngsters. Parents will get a kick out of recognizing voices from an all-star cast that includes Walter Cronkite as Ben Franklin and Sylvester Stallone as Paul Revere. YouTube
  6. “John Adams” (2008): This critically acclaimed miniseries gets a little long-winded, but catch the first episode in which Paul Giamatti’s future prez sticks to his guns to defend British soldiers. Giamatti, Laura Linney (Abigail Adams) and Tom Wilkinson (Ben Franklin) would all earn Emmys. Max
  7. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (2008): The Paddy’s Pub crew can always be counted on to provide an irreverent — and incorrect — look at the past. In the Season 4 episode, “The Gang Cracks the Liberty Bell,” they recall how their ancestors were eager to pledge their allegiance to the British. Hulu
  8. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (2014-17): Famous names take a back seat to a spy ring that helps turn the tide of the war in this action-packed series that lasted four seasons. Pluto, Sling, Roku
  9. “Hamilton” (2020): Nothing can top seeing this groundbreaking musical onstage, but the taped version has the benefit of featuring the original cast and bringing you closer to the action. Disney+
  10. “Benjamin Franklin” (2022): You can’t put together a list like this without mentioning at least one Ken Burns project. Start with this four-hour doc that captures Franklin’s inner torments a lot better than the new Apple series does. Burns’ broader take on the American Revolution is currently in production. PBS Passport
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