Review: 'Franklin' proceeds with clunky determination and falls short

Sometimes, despite the best talent and intentions, a TV event can fall flat.

April 12, 2024, 4:02 AM

Sometimes, despite the best talent and intentions, a major TV event can fall flat. Case in point: "Franklin," a lifeless eight-part series about Founding Father Benjamin Franklin now streaming on Apple TV+ and riding on the appeal of Michael Douglas as star and executive producer.

Douglas can play anything, winning an Oscar as a greedy stock trader in "Wall Street" and an Emmy as flamboyantly gay piano maestro Liberace in "Behind the Candelabra." Yet in "Franklin," Douglas radiates a contemporary vibe that feels physically, vocally and psychologically at odds with the diplomatic cunning Franklin hid behind the twinkling codger he showed to the world.

Douglas certainly dresses the part in Franklin's signature colonial tricorn hat, bifocals (his invention) and large overcoat. And yet he's definitely acting the role from the outside in, failing to invest the historical icon with an internal compass or a beating heart.

PHOTO: Michael Douglas and Noah Jupe appear in a scene from the Apple TV+ series "Franklin."
Michael Douglas and Noah Jupe appear in a scene from the Apple TV+ series "Franklin."
Apple TV+

Douglas, 79, plays Franklin in his 70s during the eight years he spent in Paris, starting in late 1776. His goal? To keep the British at bay while conning money out of the French to float the American revolution. Success on both counts, as history proves.

The trouble is that Douglas radiates a fierce intelligence that no one can miss. So much for the wolf in sheep's clothing who stays one step ahead of his enemies and purported friends. No objection here about Douglas refusing to portray the so-called inventor of electricity as a quippy old dear popularized in legend and in the Pulitzer-winning book and Broadway musical "1776."

Sadly, what's left for Douglas to play of the private Franklin is a political celebrity bone-weary of turning on his starshine while suffering from gout and nonstop flatulence. The famous flirt can barely go through the motions with the ladies, played by Ludivine Sagnier and Jeanne Balibar.

As for the court intrigue loaded with British spies and French frenemies, they all seem interchangeable. That's surprising given that the series is directed by Tim Van Patten ("The Sopranos") from a Kirk Ellis-Howard Korder script adapted from "The Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America" by Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff.

PHOTO: Michael Douglas appears in a scene from the Apple TV+ series "Franklin."
Michael Douglas appears in a scene from the Apple TV+ series "Franklin."
Apple TV+

What happened? For starters, this series is padded beyond forgiveness, with Franklin jabbering at his hapless grandson Temple (Noah Jupe), a teen who accompanies gramps to France as his secretary and ends up seduced by the femmes and, er, the culture. No knock on Jupe, who deserves props for "A Quiet Place" and "The Undoing," but his character registers as weightless.

It's a kind of torture watching Franklin and Temple learn to converse about nothing in French with English subtitles. But if, like me, you're tired of watching a miniseries take eight hours to deliver a story that could easily be told in two, "Franklin" is further evidence.

Things improve in the last episodes with the appearance of livewire Eddie Marsan as future American President John Adams, so obnoxious and disliked by all sides that even Franklin loses his cool. What a shame that the fireworks are short-lived. Characters come and go without leaving an impression. Franklin's bastard son William, a British loyalist, is barely mentioned.

"Franklin" proceeds with such clunky determination you'll think you're watching a decade of history unfold in real time. All the pomp, pageantry and lavish costumes are only momentary distractions in a series that seems determined to lull you to sleep. Mission accomplished.