Turn Series Premiere Review: The Patriot Act

By Kaitlin Thomas

Apr 07, 2014

Turn S01E01: "Pilot"

Given the critical acclaim of of FX's 1980s-set The Americans, it was only a matter of time before other networks attempted to break into the spy genre. AMC's new drama Turn doesn't have the moral complexity of The Americans, but it's a mostly entertaining adventure set during the Revolutionary War, when the birth of modern espionage took the form of the Culper Ring, the real-life spies who aided George Washington and his men in order to turn the tide in favor of the Patriots. Turn begins in 1776 and explores the area surrounding New York CIty, which had become a Loyalist stronghold. Most of the action takes place on Long Island, though it occasionally ventures into the forests of New Jersey and the Connecticut coastline as well, which, because this series is based on true events, is at least factually accurate for what was going on during 1776 and 1777.

Jamie Bell, who will probably be 80 years old and still be known as the Boy From Billy Elliot, stars as Abraham "Abe" Woodhull, a cabbage farmer and the son of a local magistrate loyal to the King of England. He has no desire to choose a side in the war, instead opting to keep his head down in order to ensure his young son will live a life without conflict. Abe's one of the few in Setauket, New York who feels this way, as the town is controlled by the Loyalists. The series paints a picture of a time rife with struggles, when a person's affiliation with either the Crown or the American Patriots was their most important trait. 

Through a series of unfortunate events, which include a poor cabbage crop, being accused of murdering an officer in the army, and Abe's true love Anna (played by Heather Lind, and who's definitely not his wife) being preyed upon by a Loyalist d-bag, Abe is slowly pursuaded by his childhood friends Ben Tallmadge and Caleb Brewster, both fighting for George Washington, to aid the Patriot cause by smuggling information. Abe's inner conflict is what gives the series its backbone. He involves not only himself, but also Anna in these acts of espionage, and it weighs heavily on his mind. His wife (Meegan Warner), who doesn't appear to be a Loyalist and who'd rather just keep her head low and stay out of trouble, begs Abe not to get involved, although she doesn't know exactly what's going on. Abe, however, is driven to do what he thinks is right in order to protect his own son, so that he won't grow up in a land divided by war, or with a father who turns his back on him.

I'll don't want to compare the show too much to The Americans, because the two series share nothing except they're both period spy dramas, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the successful way the FX drama manages to paint both the Jennings, who are Russian spies living in America, and the U.S. government in a way that viewers are constantly forced to really examine the idea of who's right and who's wrong. Elizabeth and Philip are just as sympathetic as Stan Beeman and the FBI. It's a complex story and it's probably the best aspect of the series. 

Turn, in comparison, very clearly paints the picture that the Patriots are the good guys and the Loyalists are the enemy. As this is an American series, and because we know how the Revolutionary War ends, this makes sense on every level. Abe obviously ends up as a spy working for the Patriots, which is another reason for the lop-sided picture, and it's hard to argue with that sound logic, but the villains—as deliciously evil as they are—are painted a little too black and white. Villains shouldn't be villains just to be villains or because they're playing for the opposite team. Give me a little background. Tell me why they're fighting for King George III. Tell me why I should care about them at all! 

Samuel Roukin as the douchey Captain Simcoe, who has a thing for Anna, appears to be delighting in playing the bad guy, but there's no shades of gray to the character at all. Burn Gorman's Major Hewlett, on the other hand, at least appears to be a little gray in the moral region, although he's still loyal to the Crown. Abe, his childhood friends Ben Tallmadge and Caleb Brewster, who are also part of the spy ring, are clearly the good guys here, and while that's fine and makes for an interesting enough story on its own, I can't help but feel the series and the story would benefit from diving into the Loyalists a bit more, especially considering Abe's father, played by Kevin McNally, is one. The best enemies tend to be people who draw you in and make you see things from their point-of-view so you don't know whether or like them or hate them. I'd love to see this happen on Turn

In terms of the rest of the pilot, it's perfectly watchable, but it lacks any sort of hook. There isn't a single moment that pulled me in as a viewer, that made me sit up and think, "Yeah, this is cool!" This is in part due to the plotting of the episode, which is a little slow at first. I can forgive it, though, because viewers are introduced to the world of espionage at the same time Abe's being recruited in to it. Plus, it makes it easier to understand what's happening, because the pilot wasn't exactly the most easy to follow story ever told. That being said, I do hope that once the writers have built these characters and fleshed out their personal motivations for joining the war, the series will pick it up a bit. The slow build it bound to turn off a few viewers who tune in expecting a high-octane drama with fighting and violence and daring spy missions every week. There's plenty of violence to be had, but it's not necessarily showy, and the world of espionage is usually a quiet and secretive one, anyway. We have to remember it's only 1776 and they're still delivering messages via couriers on horseback, so there's only so much the series can do.

The 90-minute premiere acts as a good introduction to the series, to the characters, to the violent times of the Revolutionary War, when soldiers could be bought and patience was wearing thin. But if there's one thing the series is truly guilty of, it's making said war feel small. It's true that much of the action was set in New York and New Jersey in 1776, but it still feels like the war is a localized disagreement, not a war for independence that encompassed a large expanse of the colonies and affected many more people than just those living on Long Island. Abe is the main character and he and his friends are located there, but the narrow-minded point of reference hinders the entire concept. There has to be a way for the series to show the scope and importance of the war without also sacrificing the character development and adding too many locations.


– If Turn and The Americans had a wig-off, I think The Americans would win.

– I'm probably alone in this, but once I realized Burn Gorman is on Turn, my interest in the series went way, way up. I love that man.

What did you think of Turn's series premiere? Will you be back for Episode 2?

  • Comments (49)
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  • marydevine961 Jun 28, 2014

    We enjoy the show! Good to hear it will return!

  • paintcan May 20, 2014

    I like most of TURN but one detail keeps kicking me in the face.
    Jamie Bell is ridiculously cast in the lead role. Neither of the two women would give him the time of day in real life. He is scrawny with zits.
    The casting call Bell's would have been interesting to watch.Who else read for the part for crying out loud !
    The duel against Simcoe was great for comic relief. If you buy it why didn't he wet his pants !!
    Simcoe carries the show for me BTW. Deliciously evil .

    Does Bell watch the episodes wonder?

    Why haven't more people commented on this show? What re the ratings?

  • chandler0201 Apr 29, 2014

    Historical inaccuracies aside, I am 4 episodes in and slowly beginning to enjoy this series. I remember that it took me nearly a full season to really get into The Americans, and I have a feeling this will be a slow burn as well. My biggest concern though is how this series will be paced. The storyline is rather limited, so will they focus on a 6-12 month period every 8-10 episode season and end after 5-6 years, if they are renewed for that many? I am sure more inaccuracies will be used to fill plot time as there isn't a huge amount of stuff to work with. After all, the book this is based on is only 220 pages anyways...

  • buildrich Apr 16, 2014

    Thanks, Caitlin for your marvelous review. I hope it draws in more viewers.
    Thanks, too, GeoWash and andreweather for your fact-checking; but I'm not going to let it spoil my enjoyment of the show. (BTW, I gave you both thumbs up.) It is, after all AMC, not The History Channel. The promo says it's the story of America's first spy ring, not the TRUE story.
    There's a lot to like about Turn's pilot: the sense of what life was like in 1776 Long Island (I love the windmill!); the difficulty in trying to keep your head down when you're automatically guilty by association as far as the Brits are concerned; the aerial views of unspoiled countryside; and the constant danger of living under an occupying force that could imprison or even kill without due process. It's one thing to read about how British soldiers were billeted forcibly in Colonial homes; but quite another to show a sleazy officer taking advantage of the situation. It was great to see how Anna turned the tables on Capt. Simcoe and slyly got the timing of his mission in a discussion of his laundry.
    Two criticisms: Like Caitlin, I'd like to see the Brits given more character development than they've gotten in this episode. And like several others who commented, if it weren't for subtitles, I would have been rewinding a lot.

  • CherokeeRose4 Apr 13, 2014

    I liked your review more than the episode. I really wanted to like this show but instead I was incredibly bored. Like you, my interest went up when I learned Burn Gorman was part of the cast but he just wasn't in enough of this episode to keep me happy.

    I think I will tune in for episode two just to see if things improve.

  • antmorris3511 Apr 12, 2014

    This show's worth watching. Nothing bad to say about it, but I find colonial fashions funny as hell. Especially the hats. I've gotten use to the wigs. I almost couldnt make out some of the dialogue, but I'll watch the premier again.

  • MarlboroMagpi Apr 11, 2014

    It was a good premiere and I will continue to watch.

    On a side note, anyone know the voice who introduce the preview for next week. I been hearing it on Breaking Bad, Mad Man, The Killing and all the other AMC shows.

    That voice is so good that it makes a below average show like Low Winter Sun so much better. Seriously ! I am not joking.

  • jenrose72 Apr 10, 2014

    I really like this, I'm far more interested in this period than the on-going obsession with the WWII era. That having been said, this isn't a documentary it's entertainment, and I am going to get full enjoyment from the story whether it's accurate or not. I am absolutely ok with artistic license, and this show looks gorgeous, the writing is good, and the acting is outstanding. When I'm interested in getting the historical account (and I will be at some point) I'll read a book. The ep seemed a bit clunky, but that's to be expected in a pliot for a show like this one, and I eagerly anticipate the next chapter of the story.

  • somner1 Apr 09, 2014

    My problem with the show thus far, was that I get lost in the heavy accents of some of the characters. So I get lost because I miss a word or two.
    I know that things have been going on prior to the show starting, but it seems like there was a whole lot of stuff happening before that they are talking about, that I am lost.
    It is hard for me to follow political shows.
    My wife had a hard time getting into the show and she stopped watching mid way through. She asked me about what was happening in the show...things that I think only people who studied the time period would know about.
    My guess is that the pilot is dumping a ton of information on us, and a ton of characters whose alliances we can't quite figure out. Maybe by the next episode, things will smooth out and not feel like a dump of info.

    I will watch the show because I like that time period. I hope I can get more involved into the show.

  • MarlboroMagpi Apr 11, 2014

    I too almost got lost with the heavy accents and some scenes I have to rewind and watch again. Me not knowing all the actors did not help too. However because the show painted the Villains and Heroes so clearly, it makes it easier. I will continue to watch.

  • GeoWash Apr 08, 2014

    Thank you, Kaitlin, for your accurate review. I only wish I could say the same for the accuracy of the "history" being portrayed in this show.

    This show is a disgraceful corruption of history. Shameful.

    AMC started this "historical" series, in the opening scene no less, with a BLATANT falsehood - showing Abe Woodhull as a married man with a young son. And from there, the lies just continued.

    Facts: Abraham Woodhull (1750-1826) was wedded to his wife, Mary, in the year 1781, and their children were born AFTER the war was over. He was a single man when he worked for the Culper Spy Ring in 1776, thus he had no "family" concerns to worry about.

    FACTS: Anna Smith Strong (1740-1812) was 10 years older than Abe. They were never engaged, and in fact had no romantic relationship. Anna, a devoted wife to Selah Strong (1737-1815) had already been married to her loving husband for a full 16 years, and they had 3 children by 1776. Anna was never a tavern keeper, but rather the daughter of a former Judge, from an elite family.

    There was never a "love triangle" between these characters. In fact, Abe Woodhull and Selah Strong were actually related. And Abe was a mere 10 year-old boy when Anna married her husband! Anna worked very hard to have her husband released after he was imprisoned - and not because he was in a barroom brawl (another lie, of many) - but after having fought in the Battle of Long Island. After he was released, Anna and Selah remained married for over 50 years.

    (A simple Google search will confirm all these facts)

    I understand that certain license is granted to filmmakers when portraying historical events. But to so corrupt the personal lives of ACTUAL people is beyond the pale. We should not just forgive the writers of this show for being either too lazy or too ignorant to depict the truth. The Culper Spy Ring wasn't interesting enough, so they had to have Abe and Anna have the "hots" for each other? They had to invent a "love interest" angle?

    This is supposed to be history? These people were not fictional characters. They were REAL human beings, who lived, bled and died. They performed heroic deeds in the service of the founding of our country. To have AMC, and the producers of this show, desecrate their memory, and spit on their graves, is beyond despicable.

    This is not history. This is blasphemy. This is a crime against the memories of these people. This is a scandal, and it should not be allowed to be portrayed as true American History.

    Shame on AMC.

  • paintcan Apr 20, 2014

    Man you do go on ! Relax.
    Besides the history of this period has never been set in stone. Add this to your thinking - "...one spy’s name was not uncovered until the twentieth century, and one remains unknown today"
    This story is still being written.

  • jerlouvis Apr 08, 2014

    GeoWash you make a compelling argument for condemning AMC for saying this is based on factual information when they bastardize the facts.The things you mention are not little tweaks,but complete fabrications.

  • Sanity_Bleeds Apr 08, 2014

    Wow, that is a whole lot of words to describe why you aren't a TV writer. Not even the History Channel puts that much agonizing detail into their specials.

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