AMC’s ‘Turn’ fails to construct revolutionary spy saga

AMC’s new drama, “Turn,” based on the novel “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring” by Alexander Rose, has one of the best opening credits sequences in recent memory. In 45 seconds of stark, highly stylized animation, the show presents a vision of a new type of Revolutionary War story: a rollicking piece of espionage and intrigue, one which finds a good measure of fun in the beginnings of modern spycraft.

Unfortunately, those opening credits are utterly mismatched to the content of the show itself, which is more tedious than thrilling. “Turn” stars Jamie Bell as Abe Woodhull, a humble cabbage farmer who gets caught up in the conflict between rebels and redcoats when he is recruited by the Continental Army to spy on the British soldiers occupying the small New York town he calls home. Series creator Craig Silverstein is perhaps best known for creating the CW’s “Nikita,” another spy drama, but “Turn” misses out entirely on everything that makes a spy story interesting.

The show’s problems begin with its central character, Abe Woodhull, who is the type of protagonist willing to go to great lengths in order to avoid committing himself to any particular cause.

The show’s extra-long pilot spends a good chunk of its time setting up a preposterously complex scenario that basically forces Woodhull into his position as a spy. It’s a bizarre choice to devote so much time and energy to making it clear how much the show’s hero absolutely does not want to participate in any of the action that will drive the show forward. Presumably, this was a choice made to create a dramatic arc for the character.

The season will likely revolve around Woodhull becoming more ideologically aligned with the cause of the rebels, but in the pilot it just makes him a difficult character to understand. Bell does his best to give the character consistency, but there simply isn’t enough there for him to work with.

Part of the reason for Woodhull’s inaccessibility as a protagonist is that the pilot relies far too heavily on expositional backstory. We learn how Woodhull was previously engaged to his childhood sweetheart, but the engagement was broken when he was unwilling to support the Patriot cause. That sweetheart instead married the local tavern owner and became Anna Strong, while Woodhull also found himself an alternative wife. That may sound callous, but it’s about all the information the show presents about Woodhull’s wife, Mary. We know they have a small child together, but that’s about it, as the show is much more interested in Woodhull’s not-so-secret love for his ex-fiancée, whom he quickly enlists to help him in his spy work. This entire romance subplot feels unnecessary, despite the amount of screen time devoted to it, but is helped by the excellent Heather Lind, who gives the pilot’s best performance as Strong.

Most of the problems I’ve mentioned are rooted in character, but the pilot also suggests some structural issues with the series going forward, chief among them being the way the show depicts the British army. One would hope that a modern, morally complex drama would treat the British with some degree of depth, but “Turn” instead paints them as disappointingly straightforward villains, gleefully exploiting and dismissing the people they are ostensibly protecting.

The two principal British characters in the cast are both oddly campy villains: Burn Gorman plays Major Howlett as a fussy, uptight officer more interesting in proving his intelligence than in controlling his men, and Samuel Roukin’s John Graves Simcoe is just absurdly creepy. Making the British comic figures could work, but the show never displays a sense of humor in any other aspect, making these characters feel out-of-place. This also makes Woodhull’s moral dilemma about whether to join up with the Patriot cause seem even sillier, as it is enormously clear who are the bad guys in this situation.

All that being said, I’m hesitant to judge “Turn” too harshly based solely on the pilot. Some of the character problems could well be ironed out over the next few episodes, when the show will be able to spend more time developing its relationships rather than simply explaining them. The pilot does do a decent job of establishing a visual style, albeit one that doesn’t do much to stand out from the look of most well-shot cable shows.

The most promising moment of the episode comes in the final ten minutes, which feature a small-scale battle scene that packs in more excitement than the rest of the episode combined. Hopefully, the show will make those types of scenes a constant feature, and not just because they’re more interesting than the standard two-person dialogue scenes that make up the rest of the episode.

This story is set during a time of war, after all, a fact which is easy to forget for much of the episode. That final battle scene is a reminder of gruesome violence going on all around these characters, and of the consequences should Woodhull’s deception be discovered. That seems like the best possible avenue for “Turn” to explore going forward. The show is based on actual events—look up the Culper Ring if you’re curious about the historical basis—but those events are obscure enough that the show’s writers can easily revise anything that doesn’t fit their storyline. Normally I’d avoid calling for more violence in a television show, since there’s certainly enough of that to go around, but in this case it’s more that the show needs to fully explore the implications of its setting.

“Turn” clearly aspires to be a modern prestige drama, as it shares surface-level stylistic traits with fellow AMC shows like “Breaking Bad” or “The Walking Dead,” but it misses out on the moral complexity that makes those shows so compelling.

The Revolutionary War setting seems like the perfect opportunity for that brand of story, considering most popular American fiction set in the period depicts that conflict as a simplistic battle between good and evil. It’s hard to imagine a TV show depicting, say, George Washington as anything other than a hero. In actuality, the war was not a simple battle between the heroic rebels and the villainous occupying forces. American families had to decide whom to side with, and it was by no means an easy choice.

“Turn” relies on the same old tired binary of good against evil, and as a result misses out on much of its potential complexity. Woodhull’s father is the one representative the show has of the Loyalist faction, colonists who sided with the British, and he comes across as a boringly stern authority figure.

Of course, it’s still very early going for the show, but even if it manages to adjust its moral landscape, there are still other problems to deal with. In addition to everything I’ve talked about here, the show’s writers also have historical fidelity to consider, as the story is based on actual events—look up the Culper Ring if you’re curious about the historical basis. Those events are obscure enough that absolute accuracy isn’t a necessity, but this is the type of show viewers can easily spoil for themselves on Wikipedia. Other shows, such as HBO’s western “Deadwood,” have avoided this problem by introducing fictitious characters alongside those based in reality, and “Turn’s” writers would do well to follow that example.

It seems unlikely the show will ever adopt the whimsical tone suggested by the opening credits, but if the future episodes can do a better job of grounding the personal drama of this pilot, “Turn” could become a show with which it’s worth spending more time.

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