Apple TV+’s Franklin Proves Michael Douglas, and the Founding Father He Portrays, Are Both Timeless American Icons

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Apple TV+’s Franklin Proves Michael Douglas, and the Founding Father He Portrays, Are Both Timeless American Icons

I want to have a beer with Ben Franklin and listen to him spout aphorisms worthy of Poor Richard’s Almanack. Allow me to clarify. 

I want to have a beer with Michael Douglas in character as Ben Franklin and listen to him spout aphorisms from Franklin. I don’t personally know Michael Douglas any more than I personally know the Founding Father he portrays, but as the lead character in the new Apple TV+ historical drama, viewers will feel as if they truly know the real Ben Franklin. 

One of the most well-known men in American history, most people think of Benjamin Franklin as a scientist, philosopher, author, and notorious flirt (or womanizer, depending on which historian you believe). However, 234 years after Franklin’s death, all the modern mind can typically conjure when hearing his name is the balding, pot-bellied, bespectacled statesman from drawings or paintings. So seeing the esteemed man brought properly to life by Academy Award winner Michael Douglas is an absolute delight.

The series follows what are arguably the most important years of Franklin’s distinguished career. Sent to France, he’s tasked with the impossible. With no authorization from Congress and without an official government title, Franklin has to use back channels to convince the French that the United States should be financially funded in its war for independence. If he fails, the United States falls. Asking a monarchy to support a burgeoning republic in its efforts to overthrow another monarchy, even against a common enemy, is a herculean task.

When we first meet Franklin, he’s not signing the Declaration of Independence or flying a kite to learn more about electricity. It’s December 3rd, 1776 and he’s just reached the coast of France with his 15-year-old grandson, Temple (Noah Jupe), who acts as his private secretary. While greeted with enthusiasm by the French citizens who revere the American for his scientific achievements and wit displayed through his popular Almanack, Franklin finds his mission to be even more difficult than anticipated. 

Not wanting his people to get any ideas about their own independence, King Louis XVI initially scoffs at the idea of meeting with the famous visitor. But that’s not to say that there aren’t people willing to help. French Foreign Minister Vergennes (Thibault de Montalembert) has his own motivations to believe in the American cause, but has to move tactfully so as not to upset the king. And this is not the only obstacle Franklin faces. 

Throughout the series, Franklin has to contend with British spies, an intimate betrayal, the distracting immaturity of his grandson (more on this later), and the complexities of the French political system. In France, there’s a lot of pretending not to care about things people care deeply about. There’s plenty of artful machinations in Franklin, and thankfully Michael Douglas—and Dr. Franklin himself, as he’s most commonly called in the series—are both up to the task. 

Douglas absolutely sizzles as Franklin, creating a layered character that brings the historical figure to life. There’s many facets to the role and Douglas tackles each one brilliantly. 

There’s Franklin the schemer: after the Battle of Saratoga proves that the Americans have a chance at winning the Revolutionary War, he plays up the British coming to him for peace talks to get more resources from France, which is worried it’ll lose out on its sizable investment. Franklin uses his printing skills for U.S. propaganda, is witty enough to charm any crowd with his eloquence and humor, and clever enough to get Lafayette (Theodore Pellerin) sent to America to fight in the war, further bonding the two countries. 

There’s also Franklin the charmer: throughout the season, we see his interactions with Madame Brillon (Ludivine Sagnier) and Helvetius (Jeanne Balibar). He cares for both women but for different reasons. Brillon is a calming presence, caring, and creative, she appeals to the softer side of Franklin. Meanwhile, Helvetius is more brash, always stating what’s on her mind and clear with her flirtatious intentions. She brings out the passionate side of Franklin. The trio form an odd love triangle, but as with all things Franklin, in a way you won’t expect. 

The most enjoyable side of Franklin, however, is when he’s a wordsmith. No one can turn a phrase better. Whether he’s trading barbs with John Adams (Eddie Marsan), wooing any lady within earshot, or throwing out countless aphorisms (“He that lives on hope dies farting,” and “Remind me to instruct you on the usefulness of the well-timed lie” were two of my favorites.), the dialogue in Franklin is almost lyrical.

All these aspects of Franklin the man are encapsulated in Michael Douglas’ captivating performance. Every time Ben Franklin was onscreen, I was waiting in anticipation for what he would do and say next. Intelligent, cool under pressure, and laugh-out-loud funny at just the right moments, Douglas not only convinced me he was Benjamin Franklin, he made me want to believe that what I was seeing onscreen was exactly what the man was like in real life. 

Much like Apple TV+’s other historical dramas (Masters of the Air, Manhunt), Franklin makes for excellent TV. Sadly what keeps it from reaching greater heights are the antics of Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Temple. Make no mistake, Noah Jupe is a fine actor. The issue is the role, which not only takes away from a brilliant main character, but has a juvenile storyline that leads to nothing of significance. 

Temple’s disconnected plot also makes Franklin feel bloated. With some fat trimmed, the story of Benjamin Franklin’s journey to eventually get the Treaty of Paris signed in 1783 could’ve been done in six episodes instead of what feels like a hefty eight.  

Even though it has some issues, Franklin is an addictive look at one of the most fascinating people in American history, led by a scintillating performance from a first rate actor. Here’s hoping Apple TV+ does even more historical dramas. Alexander Hamilton, Harriet Tubman, and Theodore Roosevelt are standing by.  

Franklin premieres Friday, April 12th on Apple TV+. 

Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model. When he’s not laughing at Ben Franklin fart jokes, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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