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Turn: "Pilot"

A promising premise gets an uneven start

Welcome to Turn, the period drama that’s decided to go up against Game of Thrones with nothing but a Revolutionary War spy ring, a cabbage farmer, and a dream!

In fairness, the first thing holds promise: Turn is structured around the formation of the Culper Gang, patriot spies who fed information on the Tories to colonial troops and helped turn the tide of the Revolutionary War. Well, technically, it’s about the spy ring; there’s a lot more atmosphere than espionage so far. And that’s fair enough, maybe. Putting aside Sleepy Hollow jokes (though I’ll be making some), it’s an era relevant to a country currently dealing with the privileged few living free of consequence and making demands, while establishing an 18th-century world that’s still so small one can know everyone in the next town by name. And notably, on top of law enforcement being violent and highly subjective, a lot of the pilot is devoted to the British army’s presence in colonists’ homes, hoping for a parallel of surveillance culture.

The Quartering Acts were as much a way to stifle colonists as they were a way to save military money, and their purpose as an act of domination was so pointed that quartering made it into the Declaration of Independence as a specific offense, and is prohibited in the Constitution. The show opens with a family moment interrupted by a military lodger, deliberately to highlight its intrusiveness, and the rest of the subplots arise pretty directly from British soldiers in people’s homes, first as obstacle and later as opportunity. The parallels skew a little “It’s Just Like Today, Get It?”, but that might be a symptom of it being a period piece pilot that knows it will be getting more complicated—we have handwritten locations half a dozen times in this episode alone, as the camera flies over pastoral, isolating landscapes that make Long Island and Brooklyn seem vastly separated—and wants everybody on the same page.

The cabbage farmer’s not bad either. When you want an intense, conflicted but generally upstanding young man, you could do worse than Jamie Bell, who almost carries the pilot’s meandering pace by himself as Abe Woodhull, an everyman whose bad circumstances (curse you, cabbages) turn into a vise when he’s caught small-time smuggling, and agrees to be a spy for the colonials mostly so he doesn’t end up dead. His personal code promises some conflict amid the squishy moral swamp of spycraft, though the pilot gives us about twice as much as we need: We have disparate situations where we’re assured he’s a man of honor regarding debts, family obligations, and old sweethearts, and respects the law above all else (they tell us that twice!), despite Abe slipping easily into playing a part as soon as it’s called for. But overall—and particularly in small moments like his polite, halting marriage—Bell delivers a compelling central figure. Hopefully the writing tightens up enough to be worthy of him.

He leads a cast who seem to have signed up for two very different shows. Of the people who are actually in Turn, Heather Lind is a standout; her Anna Strong is smart, brave, and more activist than Abe, which positions her for plots outside her relationship to him. Luckily that’s not overwhelming so far; they have chemistry, but their interactions are more spycraft than pining—especially for Anna, already dealing with an imprisoned husband, a houseful of soldiers, and a creep (Samuel Roukin, appropriately slimy as Simcoe). It helps that Abe and Anna’s scenes are shot for claustrophobia, with shadows at the edges of the frame underscoring the sense of imminent discovery. I’m looking forward to more of her. (Also hope for more Meegan Warner as Abe’s wife, making the most of a whisper-thin part.) Daniel Henshall as Caleb manages some intensity under his affable exterior, though the rest of the colonials have yet to distinguish themselves. Kevin McNally as Abe’s Loyalist father is the only antagonist who gets nuance; his desire to protect his son is second only to his desire to hang out with Burn Gorman and recite Shakespeare.

Gorman (as Major Hewlett) leads the other half of the cast, who are in a much campier show where every line’s delivered at Full Sneer and no invisible mustache goes untwisted. Surprising nobody, it’s mostly Brits who get this two-dimensional treatment. Gorman’s totally, marvelously game. JJ Feild, a great actor generally, has potential to do something more nuanced, should that ever happen; right now he’s only asked to be snide and hold messages (they’re very snide messages, it works). Rising effortlessly above them all is Angus Macfadyen, who must have been paid in all-you-can-eat scenery, oozing lines like, “Who is this mythical source of yours,” fondling a crystal chandelier in the foreground while JJ Feild hovers behind him, visibly not being paid enough to engage.

Which brings us, at last, to the spycraft. It’s not that the show doesn’t have any political tension; it does, and the specter of spies hovers over the pilot from its opening minutes, as the colonial forces realize they’ve been set up and that counterespionage is their best hope of survival. However, despite some tense conversations and a dead British officer, it still feels as though there hasn’t been time. Even after some drawn-out hemming and hawing of Abe deciding whether he’ll actually spy (he will, okay? He will), we get only an obligatory opening volley, which involves Abe knocking over a bunch of windowsill tchotchkes and working out a decoder sheet. As spycraft goes, it’s filler for a trap at episode’s end. It does get a jolt in the arm, though, from the fact that Abe’s recruiter, Tallmadge, has an agenda of his own and won’t hesitate to break a promise for his own ends. That sort of ethical morass within the ranks promises to be the most interesting aspect of Turn’s spycraft. Hopefully, it won’t stay the only interesting aspect.

I’m not sure, honestly, quite the tone Turn is going for. It feels more character study than spy thriller at the moment, which could be interesting except that there’s too many spy trappings, a thriller more about the setting than the action. Abe’s well-drawn and changes so much that we can track the uptick in his wariness, but the redcoat characters are taking bets in the back as to who can deliver the archest line this week. All in all, it’s a bit scattershot. Still, there’s enough here to hang on to, if the show ever decides to take hold of its slack threads and pull everything together.

Stray observations:

  • Given that this is the pilot I’ll cut them some slack, but a Revolutionary War drama about communities in conflict in which people of color are merely extras feels a bit disingenuous. If they’re being backgrounded to avoid pointing out our heroes are possible slaveowners and the Native Americans are silent, that’s something they need to acknowledge. If Sleepy Hollow acknowledged it more than once, so can you, show.
  • After watching Reign and Sleepy Hollow, I appreciate a show that gets its historical mise-en-scene at all correct (not one of the household items in the pilot seem at all enchanted by occult forces!), and Turn does pretty well. I’m not sure Jamie Bell owns more than two suits of clothes, which is great, and I loved that Mary wears her Sunday best to force a celebratory spin on his public chastisement. But this is also a show in which the slimy sexual-harasser from the Regulars wears black villain gloves so you know he’s extra bad. One of the best things the show could do is give in a little to its potential for either dark humor or spy-movie camp; this is a suitable nod in either direction.
  • I lost count of the number of times Rupert Wyatt puts Jamie Bell two-thirds across the frame of a bad situation: infested cabbages, barfights, jail cells, trapped by barrels and longing for a knife…
  • “I was just trying to do right.” “Try harder.” Sure, dads say that right up until you start spying for the patriots. (Though in fairness, this could also become the Captain-America-esque refrain for Abe if the show gets it feet under it.)
  • I have rarely seen a TV baby less interested in anything happening in the frame than Jamie Bell’s TV baby. That baby is not being paid enough to make eye contact.

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