Franklin review: Michael Douglas is in his element but the rest of this sumptuous period show falls flat

Television: Like a musical without a song, the story of Benjamin Franklin in Paris fails to lean into its potential

If you are a fan of Americans in wigs visiting 18th century France with a view to furthering the downfall of the British Empire, you may have already enjoyed Jefferson in Paris, a 1995 James Ivory costume drama where Nick Nolte donned a hairpiece and parlayed with the Parisians. Now comes a spiritual sequel in Michael Douglas’s Franklin (Apple TV +, from Friday), in which the pre-eminent bad boy of 1980s erotic thrillers plays a crusty American revolutionary weaving mischief in the court of Louis XVI in the late 1700s.

Franklin has one thing going for it, and that one thing is the star of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. Douglas, at 79, remains one of Hollywood’s most charismatic mischief-makers. He is in his element as the cunning and mercurial Benjamin Franklin. That’s just as well because everything else about the eight-part series – loosely adapted from Stacy Schiff’s non-fictional tome A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America – is by-the-book frock porn.

Arriving in Paris eager to forge an alliance, Franklin is passed from courtier to courtier and spends half his screen time attending dimly lit masked balls. Our hero spends much of the rest of his free hours exchanging sarcastic quips with the French (he seems more interested in wry banter than securing weapons for the war against Britain). Meanwhile, great fun is extracted from a sequence in which the naughty nabob breaks wind. Yes, prestige TV is now leaning into fart gags.

Louis’s court is a nest of vipers in treacherous toupees. All have their own reasons for becoming close to Franklin. They include the flirtatious Madame Anne-Louise Brillon (Ludivine Sagnier). We also meet Machiavellian foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes (Thibault de Montalembert). The Comte is all for giving a bloody nose to the British but is suspicious of the American Revolution and its promise of liberty for all.

Our American in Paris has motives of his own. He has bought with him his grandson Temple (Noah Jupe), to whom he wishes to pass on the lessons of a lifetime of statecraft. Temple, at one point, echoes a line from Broadway hit Hamilton, observing the Revolutionaries are outgunned and outmanned.

Fittingly, much of Franklin feels like a musical without any song. You half expect Douglas to burst into a rap as he reflects on the fall of New York to the Red Coats – or jump on a table and do a moonwalk when trying to talk the French around. But Douglas stays earthbound. Despite the actor’s charisma and the sumptuousness of all those wigs, so, too, does Franklin.

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