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Michael Douglas stars as a flirty Ben Franklin in this Apple TV+ series

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The fight for American independence has inspired many dramatic treatments, from the Broadway musicals "1776" and "Hamilton" to the TV miniseries "George Washington" and "John Adams." Now, Apple TV+ adds to that specific historical subgenre with an eight-part miniseries called "Franklin." It's about Benjamin Franklin's multiyear visit to France in hopes of persuading that country's leaders to side with the American colonies in their rebellion against England. Starring in the title role as Benjamin Franklin is Michael Douglas. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This new eight-part miniseries is based on the book "A Great Improvisation" by Stacy Schiff and begins its story in December 1776. The fight against the British isn't going well. After a recent battlefield defeat, the number of soldiers in the Continental Army is dwindling, and supplies and morale are even lower. The commander in chief of the Armed Forces, General George Washington, writes to Congress, I think the game is pretty near up. It's at that time that Benjamin Franklin is dispatched to France on a secret mission to enlist the French as allies against the British. Franklin lands in a small boat in the dead of night, then rides towards Paris in a carriage accompanied by his grandson Temple Franklin, played by Noah Jupe from "A Quiet Place." Michael Douglas, as the elder Franklin, wastes no time at all establishing his reserved yet quietly confident approach to the role.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRANKLIN")

MICHAEL DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) For a young man's instruction, Paris is the only city - much to indulge the senses but also engage the intellect.

NOAH JUPE: (As Temple Franklin) I thought I was meant to help you.

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) No doubt you will, somehow or another.

JUPE: (As Temple Franklin) How long must we stay?

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) Until we win France through our side and secure our independence - or we are hanged.

JUPE: (As Temple Franklin) Is there a third choice?

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) I suppose there's always treason.

BIANCULLI: As the Franklins are fighting for liberty, it should be noted that, as with virtually all historical dramas, there are some liberties taken in the retelling of this fact-based story. When the real Ben Franklin made his trip to France, for example, he was accompanied by two grandsons, not one. But paring down the story and the cast makes for a clearer generational and personal conflict. The grandfather Franklin speaks softly, chooses his words carefully and disguises his true intentions in every conversation. The grandson, not so much. And their two differing clashing personalities are clear from the start. From the very first contact Ben Franklin makes, taking his grandson to meet Edwin Bancroft (ph), a friend whom Ben hopes will provide some sort of entree into the French court. Bancroft is played by Daniel Mays.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRANKLIN")

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) The Congress has sent me here to elicit France in our war against England.

DANIEL MAYS: (As Edward Bancroft) Oh, no wonder your guts are twisted.

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) As an unofficial emissary, I cannot approach their side directly.

MAYS: (As Edward Bancroft) You're looking for a go between.

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) Someone well placed at court.

MAYS: (As Edward Bancroft) Well, I have some patience of influence.

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) See? I told you we could rely on Mr. Bancroft.

MAYS: (As Edward Bancroft) Whether they can be persuaded to oblige themselves.

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) I'll do the persuading. An introduction will suffice.

MAYS: (As Edward Bancroft) America's situation, it's not ideal.

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) I count the loss of New York as nothing. Armies merely regrouping by springing another 80,000 trained men. And the deeper the British press into the continent, the worse they will fare.

MAYS: (As Edward Bancroft) You concur in this opinion, Master Temple?

JUPE: (As Temple Franklin) Respectfully, sir, we are outmanned, outgunned and outspent. There are many who side with the enemy, including some I, at least, hold dear.

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) Remind me to instruct you in the usefulness of the well-timed lie.

MAYS: (As Edward Bancroft) Does he speak the truth?

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) Unless the French court provides us with men, money and arms, the United States will end before it has begun.

BIANCULLI: "Franklin" is written by Kirk Ellis, whose credits include the "John Adams" miniseries, and Howard Korder, who, like "Franklin" director Timothy Van Patten, worked on a period piece set in a much more recent period, "Boardwalk Empire." Together, they balance both sides of the scale just right. There are lavishly staged and photographed scenes of the powdered wig French aristocracy attending operas and having opulent dinners, but there also are dimly lit intimate scenes with two people whispering of intrigue. Sometimes those hushed conversations are political, and sometimes they're more of a seduction, because Ben Franklin was a bit of a rogue and a flirt. A side of the role that Michael Douglas of "Fatal Attraction" fame nails effortlessly, as when he first meets a woman to whom he's clearly drawn.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRANKLIN")

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin) Benjamin Franklin, ma'am. Lay to the printing trade from the city of Philadelphia.

LUDIVINE SAGNIER: (As Anne-Louise Brillon de Jouy) Anne-Louise Brillon de Jouy of Passy.

DOUGLAS: (As Benjamin Franklin, speaking French).

BIANCULLI: The sexual distractions in this drama are amusing and quite varied. Ben Franklin is invited to play cards with Marie Antoinette, the French queen, while his inexperienced grandson is escorted to a French brothel. But it's the political flirtations that are the true spine of this "Franklin" miniseries. Like the movies "Lincoln" and "Jefferson In Paris," "Franklin" is about the long, compromising path to a particular goal - the large setbacks, the small triumphs and the perseverance that make victory possible. And finally, there's the context of this centuries-old story as it applies to our time. Ben Franklin is branded as an insurrectionist. There are high-level government debates about whether and how to fund a country that's at war with a repressive enemy, and there's talk about the rebellious Tea Party and what constitutes a true patriot. All in all, "Franklin" is worth watching not only for what it reveals about how the United States won independence from England then but also about the complexities of war and international politics now.

GROSS: David Bianculli is professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the new miniseries "Franklin," starring Michael Douglas. It begins Friday on Apple TV+.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the great Serengeti land grab. Our guest will be Atlantic staff writer Stephanie McCrummen. Her new article is about how Gulf princes, wealthy tourists and conservation groups are displacing the Maasai - cattle-herding tribespeople - from their grazing lands in Northern Tanzania. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews. Follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADAM BIRNBAUM'S "PRELUDE IN DB MAJOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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