I give the first episode of Showtime's The Good Lord Bird a C+.
I've been patiently waiting for fifteen years for a John Brown show/movie, and finally Showtime is featuring the adaptation of a James McBride book.
You can tell Ethan Hawke has fun with the full-throated Jeremiads (and what actor wouldn't?), but they're used too often when they could have been used to greater effect if used sparingly (think Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction). Hawke is one of my favorite actors, but he's too young to play Brown. Physical comedy is not Hawke's strong suit, and everything about the depiction feels excessive. I would have preferred a younger Robert Duvall.
I can handle a little teasing of John Brown, but he's almost completely depicted as incompetent, foolish, zealous, or insane. For his first depiction on the screen, I would have liked to see a bit of nuanced reverence. The book Cloudsplitter (which I highly recommend) did better to capture Brown's moral ferocity and amusing radicality. Same with Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising (also excellent).
Overall, the acting is largely poor; the action is choppy, unrealistic, and forgettable; and the script feels oddly rushed, even though they had plenty of space to tell the story. I don't have much hope for the rest of the series. What a waste.