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Recommended: Benjamin Franklin on PBS

Ken Burns brings thoughtful complexity to the Founding Father's story.
  • Benjamin Frankin, painted by Joseph Duplessis in 1778. (Photo: PBS)
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    Benjamin Franklin | PBS
    Two-Episode Historical Docuseries | TV-G

    What's Benjamin Franklin About?

    Benjamin Franklin's life, achievements, and ongoing historical resonance are explored with nuanced research and context. 

    Who's involved?

    • Lauded documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (Country Music, The Civil War) is basically his own brand, and he brings his familiar approach to this project.
    • Peter Coyote, a frequent Burns collaborator, serves as narrator.
    • Mandy Patinkin provides the voiceover for Franklin's quotes, and it's just as comforting as you'd expect. 
    • Paul Giamatti, who played John Adams in the HBO miniseries, voices his quotations here.
    • Liam Neeson, Josh Lucas, and Law & Order stalwart Carolyn McCormick are on-hand to voice letters, speeches, and diary entries from a variety of colonial figures. 

    Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?

    By now, there's something comforting about the Ken Burns approach: When he tackles a subject, we know we're going to see slow pans across vintage paintings, hear dignified voices read historical letters, and meet a bevy of well-spoken historians. Benjamin Franklin follows that recipe to the last ingredient. 

    But the familiarity of the style shouldn't be mistaken for a shallow investigation of the hundred-dollar Founding Father.

    Each of Franklin's many achievements —from his groundbreaking studies of electricity and his vital diplomacy during the American Revolution to his publication of Poor Richard's Almanac and his identification of the gulf stream — are contextualized with idiosyncratic details about his personal life. For instance, we learn that when he oversaw the signing of a treaty with France to fight alongside America, he intentionally wore the same coat he had on when he was mocked during an appearance at British Parliament. That's petty funny, and it's a nice reminder he was a real person.

    His more serious flaws are also on display. The series acknowledges that Franklin owned enslaved people for most of his life and was late to the abolitionist cause. One historian calls him an abject failure as a husband and father, which sets up a fascinating throughline about his fraught relationship with his son William. The younger Franklin was the last loyalist governor in America, and he didn't speak to his father for ten years after the Revolution. This kind of pain would be erased in a more general celebration of American independence. 

    Another historian notes that by honoring the monarchy he had pledged to serve, William was standing up for his principles, as his father taught him. That thorny point underscores how this documentary works: Nothing is presented simply, because people aren't simple. We're allowed to see Franklin's greatness alongside his follies, and we're trusted to reconcile them for ourselves. 

    Pairs well with

    • John Adams (HBO), the series that started the vogue for American Revolution prestige projects.
    • Country Music (PBS), Burns' essential dive into America's homegrown musical genre.
    • Hamilton (Disney+), the film version of the blockbuster musical about another Founding Father. 

  • Benjamin Franklin
    Episode 1 premieres Tuesday, April 4 at 8:00 PM on PBS, and Episode 2 airs the following night. Streams simultaneously on PBS.org.
    Starring: Peter Coyote, Mandy Patinkin, Paul Giamatti, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, and Carolyn McCormick.
    Directed by: Ken Burns.

    TOPICS: Benjamin Franklin, PBS, Carolyn McCormick, Josh Lucas, Ken Burns, Liam Neeson, Mandy Patinkin, Paul Giamatti, Peter Coyote