Politics & Policy

Turn‘s Silent Revolution

The birth of American espionage gets AMC's prestige spot.

Like Archie Andrews and many other American men who will follow him, Abraham Woodhull has great regard for the blonde, but he lusts for the brunette. Married to porcelain Mary, Abraham nevertheless manages to spend ample time in the presence of smoldering Anna, a childhood friend for whom he still carries a torch. Heroic circumstance, on British-occupied Long Island in the fall of 1776, will put Abraham into close contact with Anna. Anna’s husband in turn languishes in Redcoat custody, leaving her with little choice but to welcome any male support against the masher who has occupied her house, a Malfoyesque English captain.

#ad#We know about these folks, who will form part of the Revolution’s Culper spy ring in AMC’s new Sunday show Turn, in large part thanks to the 2007 book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by National Review alumnus Alexander Rose. In the show’s press materials, Rose praises Turn’s creators for exploring “these very human factors lying at the heart of that titanic clash of nations and ideologies” and for their “creation of an alien and often startling world.”

Much of the storyline described above is invented. Woodhull did not begin his spying career until two years after the start of Turn, and he does not appear to have been the reluctant covert warrior the show depicts. The idea that Anna Strong (Heather Lind) was the unnamed woman in the Culper ring is speculative. The wicked Captain Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) was in reality a colonel in the King’s army, but here he’s reduced in rank. Abraham Woodhull’s marital career, on the other hand, has been advanced: In life he did not marry Mary (Meegan Warner) until 1781; in the show he already has a wife and a toddler. Woodhull’s father does not appear to have been the loyalist the show presents.

These changes all work out well, tightening the personal pressures, giving Woodhull more to worry about, and shaping the basics of history into a plot. The Turn press materials come in a magnificent collateral package that includes a hardback promotional book with full-color, two-page spreads; a wax-sealed envelope; and an International Spy Museum pamphlet on 18th-century espionage tools, all inside an olde-style hollowed-out false book. (Some unnamed publicist really deserves an industry award.) The enclosed DVD holds only the first episode, which is first-rate.

Woodhull is played by Jamie Bell, who originated the role of Billy Elliot in the eponymous movie and has gone on to an interesting film career. While he’s not a traditional leading-man type (a job here reserved for Seth Numrich, who plays Benjamin Tallmadge, the Culper ring’s connection to George Washington), Bell’s birdish British Isles physiognomy is well suited to the colonial atmosphere. He has a lean and hungry look. And he’s a good actor. Woodhull spends much of the first episode climbing through windows, hiding in barns, furtively rowing across Long Island Sound, and even being subjected (by the Americans!) to an early form of waterboarding. Through it all, Bell projects earnest worry and intelligent duress. It’s a solemn performance, and the show’s share of jocularity is provided by the rough and ready smuggler Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), another figure drawn from the history.

Turn was created by Craig Silverstein, a writer with many TV credits here getting a crack at what has improbably become one of American entertainment’s most prestigious jobs: the AMC Sunday slot at 9 p.m. This reviewer is predisposed in favor of the material, and Turn benefits from the prestige-TV style of combining souped-up plots and settings with a willingness to find fascination in the dullness of daily life. The show smartly domesticates its story in a plausible web of friends-and-family connections: The first episode’s themes include a blight on Woodhull’s cabbage crop, his father’s fondness for tin-soldier collections, and Woodhull’s efforts to teach his son to walk. It also moves quickly: We rapidly get Woodhull’s family predicament, a narrow escape from death by Tallmadge, secret messages using a Cardano Grille and laundry-line signals, a crucial ambush featuring some minor Last of the Mohicansstyle action, an unsolved murder, and Woodhull’s initiation into the intelligence war.

The British get a more or less fair shake. Setting the action in the middle of a hot war spares both the creators and the audience the burden of engaging any political question beyond the tension between occupiers and locals. (If you have any lingering doubts about need for the Third Amendment, this show will put those to rest.) The British commander (Burn Gorman) is a fair-minded, well-read major, though it’s already clear that the plot will require him to be a kind of Redcoat Colonel Klink, forever unable to see what’s right under his nose. The production notes promise a role for Major John André, known to history as the widely admired and regrettably hanged handler of American traitor Benedict Arnold, but he’s not in the first episode.

For all the tweaks to the historical record, Turn gets across one key point about revolutionary New York: Teeming with monarchists loyal to the foreign king, the Big Apple in the 1770s was enemy territory both by conquest and by popular mood. (As far as I can tell, it still is.) The racial component seems to be the usual muddle: New York was a slave state at the time, with a substantial free black population. Woodhull has some black farmhands, but their status is not made clear.

With few exceptions, the American Revolution has long been a graveyard of Hollywood hopes, but Turn has a chance of catching on. The cast is amiable, the setting yields more drama the more you probe its details, and the production gets high value on a seemingly tight budget. Fudging the timeline means that Turn begins during a crisis so grim Thomas Paine called it “The Crisis”: the period during and after Washington’s defeats at Long Island, Kip’s Bay, White Plains, and Fort Washington. For a while at least, the spies will be pinning their hopes on a general who is receding from them at full speed — justifying the show’s (though not necessarily history’s) argument that the American spy network turned the tide of the war.

The quality-TV fad has groomed audiences to appreciate dense plots, long-term development, arty grace notes, and high demands for viewer commitment. You’ll get plenty of those in Turn, and while I could have stood for a little more belief-straining action — somebody escaping from a British warship by hot-air balloon, maybe — the prospect of some budget-busting spectacle in the future is another reason to hope the show succeeds. The best thing about Turn’s first outing is the sense that the show is still keeping its powder dry.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.