TV Show Review: Ben Franklin

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Benjamin Franklin: America's Renaissance Man

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Warning: Parts of this show not appropriate for younger viewers.

The latest in a long line of documentaries from the History Channel focuses on Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most enigmatic of America's Founding Fathers. It premieres on Sunday, December 5, at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Times.

This show covers the usual territory, focusing on Franklin's role in winning the Revolutionary War and forming a new government. We see young Ben grow up a mischievous and curious boy and then become the same sort of adult.

Like other of this channel's shows, this one is heavy on the period illustrations and set pieces. In every case, they do not distract but rather enhance the point the show is trying to make. And unlike other shows this channel has produced, this one relies sparsely on actual re-enactment and more on traditional narration. This is definitely a good thing. You the viewer can follow in Franklin's footsteps, seeing the real places in his life, most of which are still standing and accessible to the public.

The show does an excellent job of highlighting Franklin's scientific achievements and his diplomatic successes. Watchers who know only that he "discovered" electricity and signed the Constitution will find their knowledge expanded several fold.

The show also does an excellent job of showcasing Franklin's awful relations with his family members, including his involuntary estrangement from his son as the two took different sides in the political struggle that became the Revolutionary War, and his voluntary estrangement from his wife, as he preferred to live the public life of leisure and hero worship in England and France while she preferred to stay home and tend the hearth and family in Philadelphia.

The new "hook" for this show is the addition of "ladies' man" to the list of descriptions of Benjamin Franklin. A good quarter of an hour in this 90-minute production is devoted to Franklin's reputation as a flirtatious man and a lover of many women, all the while still married. It is this material that elevates the recommended age of viewers of this show to that of older kids and adults. Some of the descriptions of Franklin's correspondence with women are frank and inappropriate for younger children. Teachers and parents who want to show this show to non-teen-aged kids would do well to record the show and then skip over these parts.

All in all, though, this is a wonderful addition to the pantheon of Benjamin Franklin information. The interviews with leading biographers tell the story of America's Renaissance in all his glory and success, while also telling of his failures and disappointments. The result is a much more human—and much more remarkable—man.

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David White