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‘Franklin’ can’t quite catch lightning with Michael Douglas as an American in Paris

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Much like “Masters of the Air,” “Franklin” marks the latest Apple TV+ historical series that feels like a companion to an earlier (and superior) HBO production – in this case, “John Adams.” Starring Michael Douglas as Benjamin Franklin during his diplomatic adventures in France, it’s a fairly flat rendition of an American in Paris that, unlike its subject, never quite catches a spark of lightning.

“Franklin” comes from “John Adams” writer-producer Kirk Ellis, with Howard Korder (“Boardwalk Empire”), director Tim Van Patten (“The Sopranos”) and former HBO programming chief Richard Plepler joining him among the executive producers with pedigreed connections to that network. The flamboyant Franklin also figured prominently in that earlier production (portrayed by the late Tom Wilkinson), with this new telling emphasizing the vital role he played in winning the skeptical French to the cause of America’s revolution.

Franklin was 70 when he reached Paris (Douglas is nearly a decade older), suffering from gout and other infirmities but bringing with him a reputation that captivated the French. He traveled with his grandson Temple (“A Quiet Place’s” Noah Jupe), whose experiences provide the foundation for one of several “B” plots.

Given Franklin’s reputation as an unlikely ladies’ man, that aspect of his time in France – which includes a lot of playful flirting – provides a surprisingly uninspired strand to this eight-part production.

Then again, there are more pressing matters to address, as the story begins with the Continental Army enduring a series of setbacks as Franklin embarks on his mission in late 1776, following him as he navigates the Franco-American alliance and eventually negotiates the treaty with Great Britain in 1783.

In between, he forms a friendship with the unhappily married Madame Brillon (Ludivine Sagnier), and later jousts with the disapproving John Adams (“Ray Donovan’s” Eddie Marsan), who harbors very different ideas regarding how to conduct diplomacy, grumbling to Franklin, “Your alleged charm must be good for something.”

Douglas continues his logical matriculation from movie star to premium TV and streaming, playing likable rogues (see Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method”) and colorful historical figures (as Liberace in “Behind the Candelabra”). He doesn’t bear much resemblance to Franklin but does capture his whimsical side, as well as his ability to use his 18th-century celebrity as an asset in furthering America’s objectives.

That said, the intrigue surrounding his mission – and what French opponents call his “troublesome” presence – feels a trifle flabby, with too many uneventful detours in adapting Stacy Schiff’s book “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America.”

With much of the dialogue in subtitled French, “Franklin” – like “Masters” and Apple’s other recent historical series, “Manhunt” – is certainly a handsome affair. Yet unlike “John Adams,” it lacks the level of supporting players and driving tension related to the Adams-Thomas Jefferson dynamic to provide a strong sense of narrative momentum.

Franklin’s legendary charm was indeed good for something, and it still is here. But even those attributes, and Douglas’ interpretation of them, don’t quite prove inventive enough to compensate for its shortcomings.

“Franklin” premieres April 12 on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: Lowry’s wife works for a division of Apple.)

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