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AMC’s drama Turn has declared itself to be the story of America’s first spy ring, a story filled with careful information gathering and plenty of double crossing. The tale begins smack dab in the middle of the Revolutionary War, which should offer plenty of fodder for fighting and intrigue. However, three episodes in, the show’s gunpowder hasn’t really sparked, giving only diehard fans of the period reasons to tune in.
Those who like their spy dramas filled with James Bond or Jason Bourne types will find themselves disappointed with the show’s hero, Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell), a bumbling young farmer who has made poor decisions at almost every turn. He is roped into working on the Tory side by his prominent father, attending dinners with important officials and running errands for the Brits who occupy his New Jersey town. He’s also tasked with gathering information for the American resistance, delivering that information through his former fiancée, Anna’s (Heather Lind), laundry line. Unfortunately, the spying is more often the stuff of casual questions and answers than of life and death situations. By episode 3, the closest Abe has come to real spying is asking some German soldiers where he will be able to deliver cabbage for sauerkraut in the coming cold months, thus determining the locale of the army. It’s a savvy question, but it doesn’t make for exciting television.
Fans of historical fiction will no doubt find a lot to enjoy about the U.S.’ earliest forays into spying. Though there are blunders by the spies and a lack of technology slows down the pace of the war, there’s a lot of intelligence in the way Turn is presented. Armies march and occupy the right places, and the costumes, settings and language of the period do a good job of transporting viewers to another time and place. Famous frontiersman Robert Rogers (Angus MacFadyen) appears and is a wild, life-filled character amidst a reserved cast. The writers want to get the details right, but it would be more entertaining if a few more jokes or action sequences would fill out the hour-long drama.
Modern touches have become common hallmarks of today’s television programming. Historical dramas like Spartacus or Vikings have been able to reimagine history in ways that resonate with audiences, either through clever scripting, fantastic action sequences or even elements of the supernatural. Turn is a drama that looks directly at the Revolutionary War in all of its slow-to-load gun drama and old-fashioned dialogue. It tells a story where the revolutionaries are the brave souls and the British are the big villains. It’s an old-fashioned story relived in an old fashioned manner—perfect for older audiences who enjoy cut and dried villains and heroes.
Case in point: The big villain throughout the show’s first three episodes has been a devil of a soldier named Lieutenant Simcoe (Samuel Roukin). Simcoe is a smug and snotty bully, who meanly teases Anna about getting it on before getting kidnapped by the continental army. Despite captivity, he has remained a despicable human, easy for audiences to hate. He, like most of the characters in Turn, are digestible enough, like breakfast at Dennys or gas station donuts. They aren't characters we crave to see each week.
Turn is about the nation’s first spy ring, and as such, AMC could have churned out a spry young drama with intrigue, valor, underhanded antics, and danger. Instead, Turn is about life in the midst of war. There is drudgery such as laundry and problems such as crop failure. As in the real world, life sometimes gets in the way of any planned spy antics. A true world has been built in Turn, but it’s not always an entertaining one.
Turn airs on AMC on Sunday nights at 9 ET.