Franklin Review

1776. Benjamin Franklin (Michael Douglas) embarks on a secret mission to France to garner backing in the war for independence against the English.

by Ian Freer |
Published on

Streaming on: Apple TV+

Episodes viewed: 8 of 8

Michael Douglas took the title role of Benjamin Franklin in this enjoyable Apple TV+ series because he “wanted to see how I looked in tights”. This sartorial experimentation sees Douglas elevate the eight-episode period drama, having a costumed ball of a time playing one of America’s Founding Fathers. The haphazard switching between English and subtitled French suggests a Euro-pudding but, well-played by an international cast, Franklin is an entertaining sortie though powdered wigs and power politics without ever becoming completely gripping.


Adapted from Stacy Schiff’s 2005 book A Great Improvisation, Franklin begins with America on the brink of defeat in the War Of Independence. Benjamin Franklin (Douglas) is dispatched to France as unofficial emissary to drum up Gallic support to turn the tide in the battle against the ‘rosbifs’. Spanning the eight-year mission, the show is at its best charting the chicanery, subterfuge and gamesmanship as the super-charming Franklin woos the French court into giving them soldiers, muskets, ammo and ships. Part scientist, part diplomat, Franklin (the dialect coach opts for the French actors to pronounce it ‘Fronk-lan’) arrives as a celebrity, and Douglas still has le rizz to play it to the hilt.

The show gets by on the sheer force of Michael Douglas’ magnetic personality.

Away from the men-talking-in-chambres scenes, there’s Franklin’s intriguing will-they-won’t-they? relationship with composer Madame Brillon (Ludivine Sagnier) — any time something interesting looks like it is about to happen, they get interrupted, to the point where it becomes ludicrous. The show’s other major strand follows Franklin’s 17-year-old grandson Temple (A Quiet Place’s Noah Jupe) as he makes his way through the court of Versailles. Jupe is engaging enough, but it feels like filler (especially Episode 6) in-between the politicking.

Just when things are starting to feel same-y, Eddie Marsan turns up as President-to-be John Adams, sent to represent a more hard-line American approach to negotiation, and gives the whole thing a new dynamic. Adams is the polar opposite of Franklin — a charmless, witless wonk — and the scenes of the two of them butting heads are tons of fun.

A veteran of high-end TV, director Tim Van Patten marshals things efficiently, if never thrillingly, and, while there’s some wit in Kirk Ellis and Howard Korder’s writing, it lacks snap in the plotting. But the show gets by on the sheer force of Douglas’ magnetic personality. Whether he is ruminating on the value of farting (“It is remarkable how one’s outlook is improved by the passing of wind”) or sporting a variety of headgear fashioned out of dead animals, he makes Franklin (and Franklin) eminently watchable. And, don’t worry Michael, you pull off the tights too (so to speak).

A pleasurable but never-compelling-enough study of the events underpinning the birth of a nation, Franklin is all about Michael Douglas playing the polymath politico with equal parts intelligence and twinkle.
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