Turn: TV Review

Turn AMC Screengrab - H 2013

Turn AMC Screengrab - H 2013

With the Brits knocking in our doors, America needed better intelligence to win the war for Washington. And independence. So it started spying. But will you return to Turn if it starts too slow? History says no. 

AMC's latest drama tries to set up a grand story of America's first spy ring but forgets to be exciting in the process.

Having series so great or so popular that nobody seems to notice how much you flounder when they're not on is a luxury (or is it a mystery?) that AMC must be praying doesn’t go away anytime soon.

Its latest series, the Revolutionary War spy drama Turn, may eventually transform into something worth talking about, but the 90-minute premiere seems so intent on setting up Something Really Big For Later that it forgets to be compelling in the moment.

That’s a problem. Not just for Turn, but for any scripted series that launches these days. The mantra of yesterday is the mantra of today and tomorrow in the new world of television: Thrill or be killed.

Now, you can thrill with words (Mad Men) just as well as you can with zombies (The Walking Dead), so a Revolutionary War period epic – with muskets and wigs and a really slow lifestyle – can create its own kinds of thrills. Stuff doesn't have to get blown up. The show just has to hook you however it can. But the problem with Turn is that it wants to tell the story of "America's first spy ring" by starting out with the wishy-washy story of one Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell).

He’s a cabbage farmer in Setauket, N.Y. – and nothing says sexy like cabbage and Setauket – who just wants to live a proper life with his wife and kids. But the Brits have taken over the town and they’re right bastards about everything, which is pretty much the best way to make someone hate you. He’s got leanings toward the rebel Americans because his good friend Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich) is serving Gen. Washington. But Abe’s own father, Richard (Kevin McNally), is a Loyalist who has enough pull with the Brits to keep his son out of trouble at least temporarily, and pops really wants him to get straight with what will clearly, in his eyes, be the winning side.

It doesn't take a genius to realize that Abe will eventually turn and become a spy for the Americans, but the pilot takes a long, long time getting there. If you’re going to create a hero, you might give him a spine of steel instead of cabbage. Yes, part of the drama is that to be such a spy you have to turn against your family and risk constant danger with the Redcoats out and about. Understood. But why not show Abe as an all-in spy first, then flash back a bit to his cabbage-farming days? That might pick up the pace.

It also doesn’t help Turn that Numrich is the more classic hero archetype: He survived an ambush that was overseen by the dreaded Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen), a Scottish mercenary – and reported back to the Americans that, hey, we’ve got a fox in the hen house so we need our own spy ring. Talmadge barely winces at his rifle wound and wants back out there to mastermind some Redcoat payback. That’s your hero.

Turn also suffers from a bit of a lumpy setup where Abe’s wife seems fine enough but the woman he’s loved all his life, Anna (Heather Lind), clearly fires off his loins and is the one who spurs him to take action.

Based on the book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, by Alexander Rose, which delved into how the Culper Ring kicked it all off, Turn should be a lot more exciting than it is. It may eventually get there – but a lot of AMC’s series not named Mad Men, Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead never got there. And that’s an ongoing problem.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine