Premium cable subscribers are currently reveling in HBO's adaptation of David McCullough's John Adams, but much the same territory, and then some, was ably covered over 30 years ago, as part of the United States' bicentennial celebration, when this epic miniseries aired on PBS over the course of several months in 1976-77 (resulting in numerous Emmy nominations over two years, something of an oddity for a miniseries). While The Adams Chronicles suffers somewhat from what was probably even then a miniscule budget, it more than makes up for a certain lack of sumptiousness in its breathtaking attention to historical detail and a host of simply amazing performances, led by George Grizzard as John Adams.
The miniseries begins with Adams attempting to get seated with the Massachusetts Bar, running the gauntlet with Justice Gridley, nicely essayed by John Houseman. Adams' early failings as an attorney are the stuff of some passing comedy, but soon he falls under the sway of a parson's daughter, Abigail, and her firm, intelligent guidance helps Adams overcome some of his personality faults, notably a certain arrogance and standoffishness that will continue to plague him sporadically for the rest of his life. In fact in a different time and place, some would argue that Abigail was more suitable, temperament-wise anyway, for public life than her volatile husband.
Grizzard does an impeccable job of showing Adams' strengths and weaknesses, playing the character over the course of several decades, from young man to Adams' death. While William Daniels (who plays John Quincy Adams in this version) tended to make his Tony-winning portrayal of John Adams in the musical "1776" a kind of aristocratic and petulant child, Grizzard opts for a less elite approach, and helps to make this difficult and complex personality at least occasionally likable, especially in the scenes with Abigail, nicely played by Emmy winner Kathryn Walker. The early scenes, with Grizzard's Adams "down on the farm," and then slowly building his legal practice, are full of some unaffected touches that make the character less of a portrait in a history book and more of an actual human being.
The bulk of the first several episodes follow the journey of John from gentleman farmer to noted attorney to diplomat to ambassador to Vice President to ultimately President. The parade of historical figures who pass through these opening episodes is, obviously, a who's who of early Americana, including John Hancock, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. There's a great deal of intimacy in this section, despite the epic sweep of history being portrayed, and some nice touches repeatedly make their way into the presentation, especially with regard to some of the failures of Adams' one term as President. Grizzard again helps to make the character perhaps a bit more self-aware than Daniels' in "1776," as some of the controversy and even corruption of Adams' tenure in office catch up with him.
The story then moves on to Adams' son, John Quincy (David Birney in the younger years, and then Daniels), who unlike his firebrand father, tends to be more introspective and less reactionary. The series charts Quincy's rise from Russian Ambassador to Secretary of State to, like his father, President. There's a good deal more family drama in this generation, with Quincy's inability to manage his finances and ultimate estrangement from his sons at the forefront of this portrayal.
History buffs may well find the post-Presidential years of Quincy's episodes the most compelling, as he becomes a member of Congress, working diligently (though unsuccessfully) to pass anti-slavery legislation, and also defending the Amistad slaves. Both Birney and Daniels do exceptional work here, bringing this lesser known character to vivid life, though Daniels perhaps digs deeper into the character, not surprising since he gets the meatiest part of Quincy's life. It's fascinating to compare the Amistad portion of this miniseries with the epic treatment it got from Steven Spielberg a few years ago. This smaller-budgeted, drastically more intimate (not to mention shorter) portrayal actually has more pathos, at least with regard to Quincy's long life, since there is some valuable context of that life here which was missing in the blockbuster version.
If the first two generations (John and John Quincy) of the Adams family are probably the best known, it's to The Adams Chronicles' credit that it continues the saga for two more generations, showing Quincy's son Charles Francis (John Beal) following in both his father's and grandfather's footsteps by becoming Minister to Great Britain. With the Civil War beginning to rage, Charles strategizes ways to keep the English from fighting on the side of the Rebels.
The final episodes of the series depict Charles' sons Henry (Peter Brandon), a noted historian and author, and Charles Francis II (Charles Siebert), an executive with the Union Pacific Railroad and visionary who helped create the national network of raillines, pushing the UP almost to the point of bankruptcy. If there's less of the visceral impact of the opening segments in these final episodes (mostly due to most peoples' lack of knowledge about this generation), there's actually some added interest simply because few, other than historians, are aware that the Adams family continued to make its mark well past the two Presidents. While there's perhaps less inherent drama here, there's the same patrician attitude in the performances of these episodes' stars that harken back to what we've already experienced earlier, and which help give these latter-day Adams some inner life that frankly might be missing otherwise.
This miniseries has rightly been thought of as a jewel in PBS' crown since its original airing. While there are some minor caveats--this was obviously shot on the fly, with some awkward camera setups, including nonstop and occasionally annoying use of zooms--The Adams Chronicles provides such amazing historical detail and finely portrayed characters that any qualms quickly fade into the background. This is one miniseries that has easily withstood the test of time, and its DVD release will be welcome news to its many fans.