AMC's new period drama, Turn, hopes to show that spies were cool, even in the 18th Century. While that's probably true, the show needs to quickly pick up the pace if it wants to keep its modern audience engaged.
Based in part on Alexander Rose's best-seller, Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, the show stars Jamie Bell, a Long Island farmer named Abe Woodhull, who is caught between his father (Kevin McNally) who is loyal to the crown, and his childhood friends Ben Tallmedge and Caleb Brewster (Seth Numrich and Daniel Henshall, respectively), Continental Army regulars who are trying to recruit Abe as an informant in British occupied New York during the summer of 1778.
What's more, Abe is married to Mary (Meegan Warner) and has a young son, but his heart truly belongs to local tavern-keeper Anna Strong (Heather Lind), who broke off their engagement over his family's loyalist beliefs.
The pilot does a decent job of setting everything up, with McNally's Quaker judge explaining his son's romantic backstory as he partners with the local British commanding officer, Major Hewitt (Burn Gorman) to keep Abe out of the gallows after he stops a British officer from killing Anna's husband. The fact that the husband is arrested and shipped off anyway provides the impetus for Abe and Anna to renew a closer relationship, as well as for her to assist with the espionage efforts.
The show is beautifully shot and does a terrific job of bringing home the horrors of a war fought up close, as blood flows freely and dead bodies litter every field. The producers have done as good a job as you possibly can in recreating the look and feel of the Revolutionary War era. They also, thankfully, don't spend too much time explaining where we are in terms of historical context, figuring that if viewers don't already know what was happening in 1778 they can go on their website and look it up (something that AMC actively promoted during commercials).
Bell, barely recognizable from his Billy Elliott days, is fine as Abe, even if he did come across as a little too anxious to make sure that we understand the character's internal conflict. The first episode bounced him around so much as we learned where we were in Abe's story that it was hard to get a true read on him. In particular, with the British officers being played as either foppish (Gorman) or brutal (Samuel Roukin's menacing Captain Simcoe) it's hard to understand why Abe's father is on their side. Since this is a series instead of a movie, it would be helpful to explore why they were loyalists in the first place. Lind as Anna, though, is a keeper. Displaying all of the inherent tension of a woman who is forced to be nice to the resident British Army — especially the lecherous Simcoe — when she's a staunch supporter of independence, Lind helped establish the conflict with her body language better than anything in the script.
The stage is set for plenty of drama, as besides being in love with a woman who isn't his wife, Abe's father more or less disowns him and his buddies Tallmedge and Brewster knowingly betray his trust for the greater good. There's also a subplot involving a band of Scottish mercenaries led by Angus MacFadyen's Robert Rogers that, while only briefly added to the mix in the first episode, hints at the cat-and-mouse game to come.
It's obviously limited by the actual history behind the story — let's face it, we all know what the war's outcome will be — but that doesn't mean that the story can't come quicker. The show is done well enough that it will appease the target audience, like fans of the HBO's miniseries John Adams, but for everyone else there probably needs to be more hooks that propel the story and keep viewers interested in what comes next. Otherwise, the audience might just turn away.