What to watch over Fourth of July to forget about today's politics

Not that the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were flawless people, produced perfect documents or uniformly followed their own best propositions, yet I have no doubt that they would look with alarm upon what’s come of their hopeful handiwork, a politics where rules are for suckers and freedom’s just another word for messing with someone else’s liberty. Years from now, when historians come to speak of this time — and they will — they will not be kind.

Fortunately, we have television to distract us from this darkness, as long as we don’t turn on the news. TV has long looked at the American Revolution and various founding figures, in ways satirical, thoughtful and completely without historical merit — but generally with a degree of optimism. With the Fourth of July upon us once again, I have assembled a brief, entirely personal guide to relevant small-screen viewing, old, new and red, white and blue.

The internet will be your portal for much of what follows.

My first thought in approaching this assignment was to wonder whether Jean Shepherd’s delightful “The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters” (YouTube) was living anywhere on the internet — and happily it is. A production of the still-missed public television series “American Playhouse,” it arrived in 1982, the year before the film of Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story,” with Ralph, now a teenager, played by a young Matt Dillon. (There are passing references to the movie — shooting one’s eye out, winning a lamp.) At the center of the story is the Old Man’s (James Broderick) fireworks obsession, but there‘s also a sack race, potato salad, a chain letter for washrags and a bad blind date. Shepherd narrates, naturally.

With an epic tone applied to ordinary small town affairs — not to mention, two brothers in an eccentric family — Shepherd’s youthful reminiscences remind me of “The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” the ’90s Nickelodeon series shot like a Hal Hartley film. In the Season 2 episode “Grounded for Life” (YouTube), Little Pete (Danny Tamberelli), the show’s angry troublemaker, finds himself confined by his father to the house after destroying the lawn, and faced with the prospect of missing the Fourth of July, he determines to tunnel out of the house. Like George Washington in respect to his father’s cherry tree, forgiveness will follow.

The cherry tree story is arguably the first thing a child learns about this period, and it’s no surprise to find it retold by the Muppets of “Sesame Street.” “What is that he’s carrying?” roving reporter Kermit the Frog asks George’s father. “That is his little hatchet,” the father replies. “How I wish we’d given him that wagon instead … it’s like that all the time — chop, chop, chop, truth, truth, truth, chop, chop, chop, truth — I’m getting old before my time, frog.”) In another segment, Kermit reports on colonists who have mistaken the Boston Tea Party for a “T” Party, dumping turnips and tamales into the harbor. (“That’s the kind of spirit that will make this country great,” one tells a little girl who has volunteered her toboggan. “I guess so,” she indifferently replies.)

In 1987, the show offered a three-part “miniseries … telling the story of how the United States was born, more or less.” In “Thomas Jefferson Needs a Quill,” “humble colonist” Grover attempts to help Jefferson, who has broken his quill, finish the Declaration of Independence, bringing in a drill and a chicken named Phil. He’s back in “Crossing the Delaware”; believing Washington’s plan to surprise the British to be a surprise party, he’s brought balloons, streamers and noisemakers. And a host of Muppets, including Bert as Jefferson and Ernie as John Adams, assemble to choose the national bird, “who gets to have his picture on our new coins and stamps and other neat things like government letters.” The kicker is perfect.

Benjamin Franklin’s jolly persona adapts well to gentle comedy. In the 1966 “Bewitched” two-parter, “My Friend Ben” and “Samantha for the Defense” (Tubi), he’s accidentally summoned to the 20th century by dotty Aunt Clara (Marion Lorne). Along with crashing a fire truck and attempting to pay an old library fine, Franklin (Fredd Wayne) delivers words to live by (I can’t determine whether they’re Franklin’s own or that of writer James S. Henerson, but they’ve got the right tang): “I believe that a man’s wisdom, if he have any, should be left to future generations to measure against their own circumstances; if a man lives beyond his time and attempts to impose his notions upon new generations, he puts himself in very grave danger of losing any claim to wisdom at all.” As true in 2024 as it was in 1966 and 1776.

A bumbling Franklin features in the 1953 Disney short “Ben and Me” (not available on Disney+, foolishly, but up on YouTube), based on Robert Lawson’s children’s book about a church mouse responsible for most of Franklin’s inventions and successes, with Sterling Holloway as the mouse, Charlie Ruggles as Franklin and Hans Conried as a panicked Thomas Jefferson. Stan Freberg, the voice of the mouse tour guide who frames the story, played a similarly credit-taking Franklin in “Discovery of Electricity” (YouTube), a track not originally included on his 1961 LP “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America,” in which a neighbor boy (June Foray) conducts the famous experiment. (“Quick, hand me the kite — here comes the press.”)

Semi-historical Ben, in the unlikely form of Michael Douglas, can be found in the recent, melodramatic “Franklin from Apple TV+, which will keep you running to the internet — or books, should you still have them — to winnow truth from jacked-up fiction. A more likely Franklin is played by an appropriately subtle Tom Wilkinson in HBO’s 2008 astute miniseries “John Adams, which scored Emmys for Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams.

If you prefer your Franklin straight, go straight to Ken Burns’ excellent 2022 “Benjamin Franklin” (PBS.com), a four-hour tour of his life from Boston to Philadelphia to London to Boston to Paris to London. Here is where the question of slave-owning founders of American liberty will be looked at unflinchingly, if not without context. So it is with Burns’ 1997 “Thomas Jefferson” (PBS.com), which examines the paradox, as an embodiment of American tragedy, of the man who wrote, “All men are created equal [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” yet owned a whole lot of slaves.

After the scholars, comedians are perhaps the most likely to take up the question of slavery among the founding fathers. “Saturday Night Live” (Peacock, NBC.com, YouTube) has gone there at least a few times. In a 2017 “Weekend Update,” former anchors Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers return as Washington and Jefferson to defend themselves, poorly, from being compared to Robert E. Lee as slaveholders. In the 2023 sketch “Washington’s Dream,” in which guest host Nate Bargatze, as Washington, foresees a day when we will be able to “choose our own systems of weights and measures,” Kenan Thompson’s Black soldier asks, “In this new country what plans are there for men of color such as I?” “Distance will be measured in feet, yards and miles,” replies Washington, ignoring the question. “And the slaves, sir, what of them?” “You asked about the temperature.”

And in the 2002 sketch “Thomas Jefferson Meets Sally Hemings,” guest host Robert De Niro as Jefferson comes on to Hemings (Maya Rudolph), his newly inherited slave. “If it were up to me there would be no slavery,” says Hemings. “I mean, I wrote the Declaration of Independence, so that tells you where my head’s at … I’d like to take you out for corn cakes sometime,” Jefferson responds. Hemings: “All right.” Jefferson: “What time do you get off work?” Hemings: “Um, never.”

With its hip, hot, multi-genre score, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” introduced a generation of young Americans to the subtleties of 18th-century tax policy. Disney+ offers both the film of the stage show and a sing-along version, which adds subtitles and a bouncing ball — many will, of course, not need the prompt. Miranda can also be found relating the Hamilton story in a Season 4 extra-long episode of “Drunk History” (Paramount+, YouTube), with Alia Shawkat as Hamilton and Aubrey Plaza as Aaron Burr, mouthing Miranda’s words — just how you always imagined it.

To my mind, no series has served its subject better than “Drunk History,” which has the rare virtue of being both terribly funny and accurate as to the facts — or at least to one or another accepted version thereof. The Comedy Central series, which interprets better and lesser-known past events through a filter of extreme inebriation, puts an uncensored, unpretentious vernacular spin on history, somehow bringing it alive in an especially convincing way; it visited the Revolutionary War several times, including episodes on the Delaware River crossing and Benedict Arnold. Some might find the drunk element, at times to the point of sickness, troubling — but it’s a free country, to paraphrase wise old Franklin, if we can keep it.

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