There are two ways to approach History’s 3-night, 6-hour American Revolution-focused miniseries Sons of Liberty. One is to judge it on its accuracy. That is a losing game. The other is to take it for what it is: a jaunty (though unexceptional) exploration of the events leading up to independence through the lens of Sam Adams (Ben Barnes), John Hancock (Rafe Spall), and other luminaries of American history — a viewpoint that happens to include bar brawls, mob violence, maritime smuggling operations, and rooftop escapes.
History, the channel formerly known for bringing you copious amounts of World War II footage has, in the last few years, vastly expanded its range. Amid a sea of forgettable reality programming, the cable channel has come through with a few noteworthy original scripted series, like Vikings (about to start its third season).
But tackling the events of those conquerors of long ago is very different from exploring history as well-trod as the American Revolution. On the other hand, History has clearly stated that Sons of Liberty is a production rife with historical liberties (and, also of note, a particular focus on the founding fathers as total babes).
Sons of Liberty covers the events of the decade leading up to war, and it bursts onto the stage in 1765 with the ferocity of Gangs of New York (consider it a kind of Boston prequel edition). As its premiere settles in, though, it quiets down. The issues at hand, like economics for example, turn more subversive, but it is still punctuated with bursts of violence (like the British army finding increasingly menacing ways of governing the colonies).
Lines are clearly drawn for most: colonists are brave and clever, while the British are brutally inept. The unwashed, idealistic (and prone to visiting taverns) rebels are led by Adams, portrayed by Barnes as a charismatic rogue. But the more interesting story, at least initially, revolves around John Hancock, who begins as a foppish royalist, but is eventually won over to rebellion after his possessions are increasingly seized by the British (sometimes the right outcome doesn’t start with the purest intent).
Despite an average script, Spall elevates Hancock by playing him with a mixture of pomp, suspicion, and measured manners, as he is torn between the old world and the new (just like the country is about to be). The arguments towards revolt that start simmering over the course of the first two hours are really sold, though, through Hancock’s increasing conviction. The same is true for Sam’s cousin John (Henry Thomas), who also errs on the side of caution when it comes to making a stand against the British.
There are a few other story threads hinted at in the premiere, from the well-known ride of Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James), to fictionalized love triangles, as well as an inevitable parade of founding fathers (like Jason O’Mara as George Washington and Dean Norris as Benjamin Franklin, at his flirtiest and most eccentric).
As far as history and scope go, Sons of Liberty is a far cry from HBO’s John Adams, with that miniseries’ focus on grassroots campaigning and regrettable dentistry (teeth are very white here, unless you’re an extra). But the production does smartly keep colonial Boston dusty and cramped, while the cinematography gives an overall feel, at least, of taking place in natural light.
Ultimately, though, the primary drive in History’s version of American independence is more about rabble-rousing and sowing seeds of unrest than of philosophical writing and intellectual debate. That approach has it merits. It manages to capture some of the spirit of history and revolution, at least, if not its actual fact. And it does so quite handsomely.
Sons of Liberty premieres Sunday, January 25th at 9 p.m.