Nothing revolutionary about AMC’s ‘Turn’

We’re getting into mainstream TV reviews this week. Not sure why. Maybe it’s just fun homing in on local newspapers and seeing how their tastes in TV roll. So far we’ve been mightily impressed by the areas of agreement that we’re finding with what we read in print – way more than we’ve ever found with online critiques. What about you?

amc-turn-tv
Not a zombie series – it just looks that way!

by Matthew Gilbert

 

It’s not easy to put together a decent TV series that’s also a period piece. The old-fashioned costumes, the dated manners and ye olde language, the elaborate set design — they’re all extra difficulties on top of the usual TV challenges, most notably the holy-grail challenge of finding good writing.

So “Turn,” AMC’s new 1778-set Revolutionary War drama, deserves some credit. About the ring of American spies helping General George Washington against the British on Long Island, the show is different from most of prime time and it’s fine, just fine. It’s artfully strewn with enough red coats, big buttons, white wigs, and puffy shirts to make you almost feel as if you’re looking at a John Trumbull painting.

But “Turn” is nonetheless a far cry from the likes of “Mad Men,” “Rome,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Vikings,” “Deadwood,” and the early years of “Downton Abbey,” all period TV dramas that not only look great but also transport you into another time and place. Those shows have the kind of intimacy and inner life that have made movies such as “12 Years a Slave” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” so much more than surface achievements. They seem to bring us into close proximity with the psychology and spirit of another age. By comparison, “Turn” is flat.

Based on “Washington’s Spies” by Alexander Rose, “Turn” follows Abe Woodhull, a cabbage farmer with a wife and infant. Played by Jamie Bell, best known for his starring role in the movie “Billy Elliot,” Abe is a polite family guy who doesn’t want to engage in politics. But due to financial woes, a father who works closely with the British, and childhood friends who’ve become radicalized, Abe is ultimately pulled into the fray and becomes a spy for the Americans. The supersized 90-minute premiere, Sunday at 9, establishes his transformation and the forming of the famed Culper spy ring with workmanlike storytelling and no unexpected layers or twists.

One of the best pleasures of another period TV spy drama, FX’s “The Americans,” is the twisty revelation of split loyalties and double-agenting. The characters on both sides of the fight for intelligence are ultimately conflicted, and therefore more or less sympathetic. In “Turn,” the characters are too obviously good or bad, with very little room in between for more interesting moral explorations. They’re all committed to one side or the other, and are either noble (American) or nasty (British) as a result.

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