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Broadcasting & Cable
Broadcasting & Cable
Michael Malone

Michael Douglas as Ben Franklin: Does It Work?

‘Franklin’ on Apple TV Plus.

Franklin, which has Michael Douglas as Ben Franklin, on a secret mission to France, trying to convince the French to help the desperate Americans in the Revolutionary War, premieres on Apple TV Plus Friday, April 12. 

Based on Stacy Schiff’s book, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, the limited series depicts a side of Ben Franklin many are not familiar with. When Richard Plepler mentioned the idea to him, Tim Van Patten, executive producer and director, said he knew about Franklin and his electricity experiments and writing and publishing background, but not a whole lot more. “I realized I didn’t have a great depth of knowledge about him, probably what most of us had growing up,” he said. 

But the more he researched the topic, the more intrigued he became. “I really fell in love with the world, and the material, and the man,” he said. 

Van Patten said Douglas is well suited to portray Franklin. He speaks a bit of French, as Franklin did, and is “charming, super-smart and funny,” Van Patten said. 

“Michael was, in my mind, the perfect person to play Ben,” he added. “He embodies so much of Franklin’s point of view.”

Franklin, at age 70, arrived in Paris in late 1776 along with his teen grandson. He ended up staying in France for several years. His mission may not get the historical attention it deserves. Van Patten said America probably loses the war if the Franklin visit never happens. “It was really desperate,” he said.

Three episodes are out on premiere day, and five more come out on Fridays through May 17. Also in the cast are Noah Jupe, Thibault de Montalembert, Daniel Mays, Ludivine Sagnier and Eddie Marsa. 

Franklin is a co-production of ITV Studios America and Apple Studios. Richard Plepler executive produces through EDEN Productions, Tony Krantz through Flame Ventures, and Philippe Maigret and Mark Mostyn also executive produce. Stacy Schiff is co-executive producer. 

Franklin shot in France. Van Patten does not speak French, but felt no locale would deliver the true authenticity of France quite like, well, France. “The French is in French,” he said. “In this day and age, authenticity is really important. If you want to make a show about France and the French, you have to have actors who speak French.”

Reviews are lukewarm. One in The Guardian called Douglas’s performance “absolutely compelling,” while its take on the series was more mixed. Variety called Franklin “exhausting.” 

“What should be a sparkling recounting of a pivotal moment in U.S. history is flattened, becoming a mind-numbing and belabored affair of wig-wearing men shouting at each other in dark rooms,” that review reads.

Asked if viewers may imagine a series about Ben Franklin to be not much more than a humdrum history lesson, Van Patten said the sharp writing, “flawless” production design, and Douglas’s performance give the series a distinct vitality. 

“Viewers may be a little nervous that this is going to be a dry history,” he said. “But it is dispelled right away.”

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