Declaration of Ignorance

040408 giamatti web Declaration of IgnoranceAll kinds of people are watching HBO’s seven-part miniseries John Adams, which airs its fifth installment, “Unite or Die,” on Sunday night at 9 p.m. Some are HBO loyalists, who will try anything the network puts on the table at least once (even John From Cincinnati, the network’s most glorious failure). Others are people like my parents, who prefer the BBC and PBS and (at least in my dad’s case) war documentaries over edgier network fare. And still others are people more like myself: avid fans of the television, in general, who are bored out of their skulls wandering the post-writers’-strike wasteland of nighttime programming. Is everything on hiatus? Brothers and Sisters, we await your return!

Still, though many young people confess that they are watching the show, nobody seems to talk about it the way they talked about The Sopranos.

It could be that Paul Giamatti, who plays the Founding Father, is not the chatter-inspiring type. Unlike Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, whose full, girly lips and sinewy muscles make him impossible to ignore as Henry VIII in The Tudors on Showtime (even if you don’t watch the show: those trashy subway ads …), Mr. Giamatti is so hangdoggy that it’s almost hard to believe Laura Linney’s glowy Abigail would be married to him.

Or maybe it’s that people feel like big nerds for watching John Adams, and can’t quite own up to it.

But I have a suspicion that a lot of the non-buzz around the water cooler, at least in my generation, has its roots elsewhere.

You see, my generation can be a little bit shaky on American history.

This has a few implications. First, it’s hard to know whether to keep up the semi-religious campaign against spoilers we collectively wage when The Sopranos or Project Runway is on. How can you admit to your friends and coworkers that you’re on the edge of your seat about John Adams’ political future?

I was thinking about this as I watched the third episode of John Adams a few weeks back. (Ahem … spoiler alert?!?) Mr. Adams was lying sick in Holland, where he suffered blood-letting for a chronic illness. On the show, Adams was in bad shape, hacking and sweating and woozily hallucinating. I thought, will he die? And then I remembered: He’s the first vice president. And then he’s president!

I was grateful I hadn’t spoken aloud, which I normally do. I think my husband would have divorced me for idiocy.

There are safe spots. The show features a lot of television character actors in very similar wigs. Don’t try to guess what state they’re from. But thankfully, Thomas Jefferson, played by the dashing British actor Stephen Dillane, is memorable, distinctive in his shy wit, so as not to be confused with his powdered-hair brethren. David Morse, donning a prosthetic nose, also stands out for his humble George Washington. And Mr. Giamatti … well, no mistaking that guy!

And it’s a short-lived problem. By the end of the season, we’ll all be caught up with the people who had a decent education in American history, right? At least on the topic of John Adams.

Bring on the War of 1812!