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?
AIRED ON 6/27/2016
Season 3 : Episode 10