Our fellow Americans certainly are red-blooded on TV this week.
Starting Sunday, the History channel’s “Sons of Liberty” miniseries tells a satisfying tale of Boston’s slow burn toward rebellion in the 1770s.
The night after “Sons of Liberty” wraps up, “The Americans” returns to FX for a third season of KGB spies hiding in plain sight during the Reagan administration.
The Colonial history lesson and the Cold War spy drama put nationalism to the ultimate test. For every musket fired in 1776, for every phone tapped in 1982, the central question remains: “When do these guys officially become Americans?”
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An angry bunch
In “Sons of Liberty,” Samuel Adams (Ben Barnes) provides the moral compass of the colonial rebels. He also stokes their outrage.
“How is this not affecting you?” Sam Adams demands of his cousin John after one of many abuses by British troops. “Why are you not angry?”
“Sons” re-creates a time when assembling a Congress was an act of bravery. Back in London, the British clutch their powdered wigs and declare the Boston Tea Party a “heinous act of terrorism.”
This is not a production for history sticklers. Before it ends its three-night run with the wrong British general attacking New York, it perpetuates a few myths to make the story a little more lascivious.
But the Revolutionary War took a long time percolating, and the narrative has to skip forward months and sometimes years to be contained in its six-hour, three-night format.
And that’s just as well. You’ll feel the drama unfold more viscerally if you aren’t a history buff. Don’t know about Christopher Seider, Peter Salem or Crispus Attucks? Good, because you won’t know what happens to them.
One recognizable name comes to the forefront thanks to a redemptive story and a charming performance. As profit-obsessed businessman John Hancock, Rafe Spall is endearingly awkward as he slowly embraces radical politics.
Hancock doesn’t fully come around until his home is rudely seized by the Brits’ Gen. Thomas Gage. What could be more American than selfish motives? Hancock’s not alone in his reluctance. Only Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James) seems eager to fight, until the British clampdown starts busting heads and changing minds.
As bad as the English come off, the miniseries’ view of our Founding Fathers isn’t exactly reverent.
Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad,” “Under the Dome”) plays Franklin as an affable instigator who joins the rebellion during a day of heavy drinking and 18th-century call girls. He’s definitely buzzed when he provides a moment of clarity.
“You’re not talking about defending your rights as Englishmen. You’re talking about a new country,” Franklin says. “That’s an absolutely bat**** crazy idea. It’s exactly what I want, too.”
Speaking of Englishmen, most of the Redcoats and London lawmakers are brutal reactionaries, calling for bloodshed even as they call Sam Adams a “thug.”
Gage (Marton Csokas) does everything but twirl his mustache with glee when he arrives to whip Boston into shape, leading to some rewarding “so that’s why we have that amendment” moments.
Gage’s wife, Margaret Kemble Gage, brings a little bodice-ripping to the story. Margaret, a New Jersey native who was excited to return to the colonies, may or may not have been a spy for the rebels, warning them of the British march toward Lexington and Concord so that Revere could make his famous ride.
Most historians think she probably didn’t betray her husband, but “Sons” keeps Margaret (Emily Berrington) in the thick of the intrigue and throws in a steamy affair with Boston physician Joseph Warren (Ryan Eggold) for good measure. It might be a reach, but it’s nice to have a woman on screen for a few seconds.
But after romanticizing some of the buildup to the war, director Kari Skogland, who has helmed episodes of History’s “Vikings” series, doesn’t flinch from the brutality of battle.
Men are always perfecting ways to kill one another, but single-load muskets and cannon did the trick, and we see the results in bloody close-ups at Lexington and Bunker Hill.
The enemy is not so clearly defined on “The Americans,” which returns Wednesday for another serving of its oh-so-successful alphabet soup recipe: a KGB couple fighting the CIA and FBI, plus a little T&A, with a soundtrack by OMD.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell) are still hanging on to their false identities as a perfect 1982 American family, but unreasonable demands from Moscow could be their downfall.
If the Jenningses had lived in 1776 Boston, Philip would have gone over to the colonists’ side long ago. Elizabeth would defend the Crown to her death. She’s a true believer, like Sam Adams was, even if it means recruiting her teenage daughter to the cause. Philip says nyet to the idea.
“It’s happening,” Elizabeth snaps. “It’s just happening.”
The moral quicksand that made “The Americans” so compelling for its first two seasons is deeper than ever. When our KGB protagonists start hunting down members of the CIA’s Afghanistan infiltration unit, you’ll realize that those are the guys who initially funded Osama bin Laden.
On the FBI’s side of the story, an emotionally exhausted Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is tasked with babysitting a prominent defector. When something doesn’t sit right about her story, you’ll hope and pray he figures her out.
And then there are the moments where we learn the terrifying logistics of fitting a corpse into a suitcase, and “The Americans” forces its audience, along with its characters, to wonder whether any of this was ever worth it.
Early in “Sons of Liberty,” John Hancock groans, “Why do there have to be sides?”
American hero Sam Adams, sounding every bit like Soviet spy Elizabeth Jennings, replies, “Because there are.”
WHERE TO WATCH
▪ Episodes of “Sons of Liberty” air at 8 and 9 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday on History.
▪ Season 3 of “The Americans” premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday on FX.