AMC has made a serious miscalculation in offering its newest dramatic series, the Revolutionary War spy drama Turn, in the increasingly competitive Sunday night line-up. The intent, I suspect, is to wed it to their flagship show, Mad Men, to boost the ratings out of the gate. But let’s be honest, it airs in the same time slot as HBO’s Game of Thrones. If your show airs and no one watches it, then does it make a sound?
Which is a shame, really, given the skill, craftsmanship, and eventual thrill of AMC’s Turn. It isn’t a buzzy show, yet, but I suspect it will prove a grower, not a shower. Based on the book “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring,” Turn begins in the backwoods of New Jersey after a skirmish between American rebels and the Queen’s Rangers, hired mercenaries who are far more skilled at combat. The battlefield is littered with blue-coated bodies. A Queen’s Ranger sloshes from body to body, impaling each one alive or dead with his bayonet to ensure the proper result. It’s scenes such as this and a few others sprinkled throughout the show that seem to attempt Walking Dead-level realism. The sounds of bayonets piercing rebel corpses echoes the sounds of zombie brain stabbing.
This scene highlights Turn’s greatest strength (and potential strongest Emmy play). The technical aspects of the show are exquisite. The sets from the small seaport of Setauket, New Jersey, to the metropolitan bustle of an early “New York Island” feel incredibly authentic. You feel the heat of the gunpowder. You see the actor’s cold breath as they whisper in secret. The lighting seems almost period in it minimalism. If you like that sort of thing, then the show is worth watching for this aspect alone.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have other positive attributes. The series picked up steam for me with Sunday night’s third episode when the spy story begins to hold its own against bloody skirmishes. Previously, Turn’s lead, Abe Woodhull (played by Jamie Bell in a confident performance that’s easily his best work since his debut in Billy Elliot) danced back and forth between fledgling spy and conscientious objector despite his rebellious tendencies. Yet, on a business trip to New York Island, Abe becomes disenchanted with his father’s loyalist politics. It’s the father/son struggle that drives his conversion to rebel spy as much as it is his other entangling alliances.
Thus far, the acting in the show all feels very lived-in and authentic. It would be difficult not to be given the strength of the technical elements. The standouts so far are Angus Macfadyen as Robert Rogers, the commander of the Queen’s Rangers, Samuel Roukin as Captain Simcoe (who has spent the better part of three episodes getting captured, having the shit beat out of him, and gleefully commenting from the sides on the plight of the rebels) and Heather Lind as Anna Strong. Lind has the trickiest role as Strong, the strong-willed woman who holds her own as her husband is taken into captivity. Her character must walk a tightrope between authenticity and providing the strong female presence that is expected of most successful dramatic series.
I still feel the potential of the show is significant and worth visiting for the period detail alone. The series creators have an obviously rich history from which to draw, and the liberties they’ve taken with the story thus far feel like steps in the right direction. It is unfortunate that AMC stuck it in the Sunday night gluttony of great television.
Turn isn’t great television yet. But, with its spy plot just kicking into gear, perhaps it could be.