April 6, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Turn”


TURN:  Sunday 9PM on AMC – If Nothing Else is On…

Unlike just about any other armed conflict in history, and for reasons that have never really been pinned down, the American Revolutionary War has rarely been a fertile source of drama either in the movies or on television.  Mel Gibson’s The Patriot was a hit back in 2000, but since then the most notable entry was HBO’s John Adams miniseries, which garnered Emmys and reviews but few viewers.  AMC’s new TURN is unlikely to change that, at least on the basis of its pilot.  Apart from both being set in the American past, the blunt, routine Turn has about as much in common with Mad Men (with which it will be partnered on Sundays starting next week) as a snowshoe has with a piece of designer footwear.

Series creator Craig Silverstein’s script (the show was inspired by Alexander Rose’s nonfiction book “Washington’s Spies”) is set a few months after the Declaration of Independence, in the small town of Setauket, New York, a community with a British Army unit in residence (in some cases, in their homes).  Mild-mannered, more or less apolitical cabbage farmer Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) is recruited/suckered by his childhood friends, now rebels, Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) into becoming a spy for the forces of General Washington.  This pushes Abe closer to Anna Strong (Heather Lind), his former girlfriend, whose husband has been imprisoned by the British after a fight with an officer, and who aids Abe in his espionage by, for example, hanging a particular petticoat on the clothesline when Abe has a message to send.  It’s a development that’s supposed to increase the dramatic tension, since Abe is now married to the very proper Mary (Meegan Warner), and they have a young son together.  Abe is also in peril because his father Richard (Kevin McNally) is the extremely royalist and unsympathetic local magistrate.

The British that we meet in the pilot are either ruffians, like Captain Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), who’s billeted with Anna’s family and torments her with leers and worse, or they’re effete snobs like Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman), who works closely with Abe’s father.  The colonists, by comparison, are all scruffy but goodhearted.

None of this reaches the level of drama that we expect these days from serious television, and it’s not even all that entertaining as old-fashioned patriotic adventure.  (The pilot was 90 minutes long, as is often the case in basic cable, so that AMC could have sold it off as a TV-movie if the series hadn’t gone forward, and perhaps the regular 60-minute episodes will move faster–although the shorter running time won’t help with providing the show some dramatic substance.)  Abe is, so far, a bland character, and none of his relationships with friends, enemies or family are especially engaging.  Even the supporting characters, who are typically reliable sources of color in historical dramas, are mainly flat, and the only reason we know there’s supposed to be chemistry between Abe and Anna is because the script tells us so.  Bell is a fine actor, and McNally (from the Pirates of the Caribbean series) and Gorman (from Torchwood) have proven value, but none of them have much impact here.

Silverstein is an experienced writer/producer whose last series was the fun Nikita.  However, this is his first historical piece, and he shows no particular flair for the kind of stylized dialogue that requires; more surprising, considering how much action Nikita packed into just about every low-budget hour, Turn generates little excitement in its first 90-minute chunk.  The pilot director Rupert Wyatt, who directed Rise of the Planet of the Apes, has an annoying weakness for jittery handheld camerawork even when he’s just filming two people standing still and having a conversation.  The physical production is convincing enough, and presumably all the designers have done their homework, but there’s nothing distinctive or memorable about the show’s look.

AMC has thrown Turn into the maelstrom of Sunday nights, thick with quality drama in every direction, and the network might have been better off waiting to launch it as a Saturday pairing with Hell On Wheels, even though that show, while more compatible with Turn, is considerably more compelling as well.  About the best to be said for Turn is that it provides some undemanding history for those who like to learn about conflicts of the past via TV.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."