Tune in Tonight: Apple TV+ present Michael Douglas as Ben Franklin

From “The Streets of San Francisco” to the court of Versailles is a long trip. And it has taken some 50 years for Michael Douglas, star and executive producer of “Franklin,” an eight-episode historical epic streaming on Apple TV+.

Based on the popular book “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America,” by Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff, it follows Founding Father Benjamin Franklin over the eight-year period when he worked as an ambassador to the French Court and enlisted the French as allies in the War of Independence from Great Britain, France’s greatest enemy at the time.

When he arrives in late 1776, Franklin knows that the American cause is at rather low ebb. The French are well aware of this, as are the many British spies who trail Franklin at every turn. His entourage consists only of his 17-year-old grandson, Temple (Noah Jupe, “A Quiet Place”).

This is a great role for Douglas, and he plays Franklin with appropriate gusto and frequent restraint. Of all the Founding Fathers, Franklin is the only one who was ever considered a wit and had a worldwide renown entirely independent from the War for Independence.

He and Temple find their carriage besieged when they arrive in Paris. Not because he’s an American diplomat, but because the common Frenchman thinks of him as the man who “invented” electricity and is seen as both a symbol of a rational new scientific age and a kind of a wizard.

For his part, Franklin is smart enough to know that diplomacy is a kind of theater. He quickly enlists French dramatist Pierre Beaumarchais (Assaad Bouab, “Call My Agent!”) to help him insinuate himself into the French court. Franklin also dons a fur cap, instantly costuming himself as a rough frontiersman in a milieu of powdered wigs.

Douglas’s Franklin is proficient enough in a halting American-accented French to impress his hosts, but is not above speaking with rude Anglo-Saxon bluntness about bodily functions. He describes “passing wind” as an exquisite pleasure. He remains the earthiest Founding Father, and the most sophisticated. And both traits serve him well while imbedded in a court culture that came to define aristocratic decadence.

“Franklin” is smart enough to accentuate history’s paradoxes — such as a representative of a stoic, egalitarian American ideal seeking help from fancy aristocrats. For their part, the French are also wary of what Franklin and his popularity might represent. Six years after Franklin’s residency in Paris concluded, Paris would be engulfed in its own revolution and many of the bewigged heads seen here would find themselves in a basket beneath a guillotine.

Writer Kirk Ellis also penned HBO’s “John Adams” miniseries. Of the two, this one is more fun, simply because Franklin is a bon-vivant, and Adams, even in Paul Giamatti’s capable hands, was a bit of a stiff. Look for Eddie Marsan (“Ray Donovan”) as John Adams in this effort.

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