Sons Of Liberty plays out more like an action movie than a historical drama, which is exactly what History is trying to do with its newest miniseries event. Following the massive success of Hatfields & McCoys, the network has taken more stories of legend and heroism (depending on the side you’re rooting for), and brought them to life with violence and enough sex to satisfy a crowd that normally eschews History’s documentary traditions. It’s through that lens that History tells the story of the early goings of the American Revolution, the stories that took place before the Continental Congress, before the signing of the Declaration Of Independence, before most of the colonies even agreed that the United States should exist as an autonomous nation.
As framed by director Kari Skogland (a veteran of History’s other scripted success, Vikings), names like “Samuel Adams” and “Paul Revere” may as well be “Stallone” or “Schwarzenegger.” Befitting stars of a blockbuster, the players here are aged down and given a gritty appeal that most likely did not apply to the actual Sons Of Liberty, who were considerably older than their on-screen counterparts. But historical accuracy tends not to make for great drama, and quibbles surrounding what actually occurred should be left to those in search of those aforementioned documentaries. Sons Of Liberty is more interested in capturing the dramatic, visceral nature of the battles, rather than the bureaucracy of discussions about taxation with representation. Ben Franklin (played here by Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris in a wig and bifocals that do little to hide his inherently spry and blustery nature) is simply more fun when he feels as if he’s on the edge of pulling a semiautomatic on the British prime minister. The second part of the series opens up with Sam Adams (Ben Barnes) brandishing two pistols at the Boston Tea Party, his arms outstretched as if he’s a character in a John Woo film. Later, he watches a man get brutally whipped in the streets for stealing from a British ship. “This won’t happen to anyone in Boston ever again,” Sam Adams says to his sidekicks. “We need more guns.” And more guns they get, inciting the revolution with the ragtag team deemed the Sons Of Liberty.
The Sons are each given their own archetype, so well-defined that they made it into History’s marketing materials for the miniseries. Barnes’ Adams is a Robin Hood-esque freedom fighter with a penchant from escaping the clutches of the Red Coats by leaping across rooftops. Revere (Michael Raymond-James, late of Terriers) is the brutish former warrior brought back into the fold. Rafe Spall’s fun portrayal of John Hancock is that of a preening dandy, so nakedly driven by economics that his fight for freedom begins as a fight for capitalism (perhaps making him the most American Son of all). John Adams (Henry Thomas) is the politico, weary of his cousin’s desire for change through violent action, rather than through political machinations. Franklin and George Washington (Terra Nova’s Jason Mara) are not part of the initial not-so-merry band of brothers, but they’re given an action-hero swagger of their own. (Worth noting: There’s an irony inherent in the casting in which half of the Revolutionaries are played by Brits.)
That’s great for the action set pieces—of which there are many, in all shapes and sizes—throughout the three-part miniseries. There are the mobs that agitate in the Revolution’s inciting events, as well as the development of guerrilla warfare that would help the Colonists eventually gain an advantage over their better-trained oppressors. But as soon as there is no shooting going on, what’s left is a lot of talking. Each episode is chock-full of the events that made it into American history textbooks—in addition to the Boston Tea Party, the second episode features Paul Revere’s ride and the battle at Lexington and Concord—but in between those scenes of warfare, Sons Of Liberty loses its momentum, especially as plots of personal intrigue are shoehorned in for salacious measure, such as an affair between Dr. Joseph Warren (The Blacklist’s Ryan Eggold) and Margaret Gage (Emily Berrington). (Margaret is the wife of tyrannous Massachusetts governor Thomas Gage, played by Marton Csokas as a man who has his own proclivities outside of the marriage bed.) But Sons Of Liberty’s draw is the battlefield, not the bedroom, and the scenes set there are certainly worth tuning in for.
Directed by: Kari Skogland
Starring: Ben Barnes, Rafe Spall, Michael Raymond-James, Henry Thomas, Ryan Eggold
Debuts: Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern
Format: Three-part historical miniseries