In AMC’s long journey toward whatever it’s going to be, Turn occupies an uneasy middle ground. It’s nowhere near as bad as Low Winter Sun or even The Walking Dead when that show is at its worst. But it also doesn’t seem possessed of the vision that made Mad Men or Breaking Bad or even Rubicon what they were. Its ultimate ceiling is probably a B+, and while that’s nothing to sneeze at, it’s a little disappointing on a network that made such waves with two of the most vital and original visions in television history. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that because of a bunch of stupid decisions, Turn starts out well below that ceiling, struggling along through stories that fail to catch fire as often as they mildly succeed.
The best thing Turn has going for it is its premise. Aiming to tell the story of the Culper Ring, a group of spies that assisted George Washington and the Continental Army during the American Revolution, Turn takes the espionage-soaked setting of Homeland or The Americans and places it over 200 years ago, in a world where the men and women in the Culper Ring pretty much invented many of the tricks of the trade that Carrie Mathison or Philip Jennings would later use in their perfected forms. It’s the kind of irresistible premise that often thrives on TV: “You think you know the story of the American Revolution,” the pitch goes, “but here’s a corner of it you’ve never heard about.”
Turn has quite a bit more going for it than just premise, however. As scripted by Craig Silverstein (whose work on Nikita offered up a fun, much poppier take on the spy genre), the series’ pilot takes its time almost to a fault, but by its end, Silverstein has constructed a fairly complex web of relationships along both sides of the war’s central fault line. Pilot director Rupert Wyatt nicely sets up a visual template that uses the natural surroundings of 1778 in the 13 Colonies as a frequent reminder of the America that was. Wyatt’s camera (and those of directors of later episodes) lingers on both the carnage and the muck and beauty surrounding the blood and gore. It’s not quite The Thin Red Line, but it aims for some of the same contemplative tone, and that’s nice to see in a televised war drama.
Silverstein and Wyatt are aided by a game cast, centered on Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull, the man who would become one of the key figures in the Culper Ring but begins the pilot as a cabbage farmer eking a living out of the dirt with his wife and toddler son by his side. The script sometimes strands Woodhull in the middle of a bunch of storylines, expecting that to act as character definition, a decision Bell struggles with. But he still manages to portray Woodhull’s journey from a man who just wants to stay out of the whole conflict (mostly because his father, played by Kevin McNally, is very cozy with the British) to a guy who can’t help but get drawn in deeper and deeper.
Even better is the mostly unknown Heather Lind as Anna Strong, one of the key linchpins of the Culper Ring’s operations. (In the show, she’s also Abraham’s former fiancée.) Lind nicely balances the many competing influences at war in Anna, from her desire for her brother and her husband to be back at home to the way the British have invaded even her residence to her fear for her own personal safety. Anna’s the show’s most complex, intriguing character, and the further in it gets, the more it seems like she may be the story’s true protagonist, Peggy Olson-style.
However, a pair of creative decisions hold Turn back from the first frame of the first episode. For one thing, it seems like Silverstein has entered his story far too early; Abraham’s eventual support of Washington and the Patriots is historical fact, and the three episodes screened for critics strain against that knowledge. The series is at its best whenever it lets go of the characters’ reticence about what they’re doing and simply delivers some cool Culper Ring stories. Like too many contemporary serialized shows, Turn begins at a point when the dramatic stakes are at their absolute lowest. Though Abraham and company face the loss of their lives if they’re caught, they’re not yet in a place where their organization is sophisticated enough to truly attract the attention of the British. It leaves everything feeling frustratingly simplistic, which is a problem in a drama with such a huge backdrop.
The other decision was perhaps harder to avoid but nonetheless impacts the show. Historical dramas like Mad Men and The Americans gain so much strength from being about the side that is about to lose the series’ central conflict. Because the story of the Culper Ring is so much more compelling than any British counterpart, Silverstein was backed into a corner on this particular point, but he also flails around when trying to develop the British characters as anything other than villainous stock characters from a melodrama. (One redcoat captain may as well tie the heroine to the train tracks while twirling his mustache and sniveling.) If the series is unable to gain the thematic complexity that arises from being about the historical losers, it could at least create British characters who have shades beyond “these are the guys Paul Revere warned us about.”
Turn has so many of the right impulses it’s tempting to grade it more highly than it deserves because its heart is in the right place and it’s the sort of show that could abruptly turn the corner and become something really cool. In choosing to center its story of Revolutionary War-era spies on relationships (particularly between Abraham and Anna and Abraham and his father), it has a fighting chance at finding its way to something compelling. The problem is that the show has yet to figure out a way to make those relationships fresh or interesting in the slightest. It’s as if the show took a bunch of things cable-drama viewers are already well acquainted with and hoped a 1770s setting would make them more fascinating. That it works as well as it does is commendable, but it’s still the same shit, different decade.