As a fan of period pieces in general, there’s little pleasure in saying AMC should perhaps steer clear of them for a while. Because in the wake of Western “Hell on Wheels” comes the new Revolutionary War-era drama “Turn,” which doesn’t turn fast enough, alas, to breathe life into its characters or setting during an extended 90-minute premiere. Dense, dank and atmospheric, the series certainly has all the trappings of a prestige cable drama, but lacks the vigor of a first-rate spy thriller. Besides, if Ben Franklin were around today, he’d probably be more curious about what’s on Cinemax.
Despite the promise of focusing on “America’s first spy ring,” based on the book “Washington Spies,” “Turn” begins with rather mundane matters of crops and debt. It’s 1776, the Revolutionary War has begun, and Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) is a young farmer living in British-occupied Long Island, trying to support his wife (Meegan Warner) and baby son.
Largely out of necessity at first, Abraham agrees to a mission on behalf of the Rebels. He will gradually unite with friends to form the Culper Ring, which fed information to George Washington.
Adding soap-opera fuel to the fire, Abraham is still in contact with a woman he loved (Heather Lind), who, after politics drove them apart, semi-faithlessly went on to marry someone else, a patriot leader who runs afoul of the British authorities. Woodhull’s devotion to her, however — as evidenced by many longing, pregnant stares — comes at a price, while her beauty itself exacts a cost, if the lecherousness of the British officers who encounter her is any indication. (Even in the 18th century, evidently it can be kind of awkward to work alongside an ex.)
Developed by Craig Silverstein, with a pilot directed by Rupert Wyatt, “Turn” gets the details right, and the violence, when it happens, comes fast and bloody. Subsequent episodes grind along in similar fashion, portraying the horrors of war and the stress of tested devotions.
Still, the inherent tension viewers have come to expect from a spy yarn feels as muted as the color palette beyond those florid Red coats. And the hours progress with only marginal momentum, suggesting the show might prove as long a slog as the war itself.
The setting is certainly an excuse to cast a lot of topnotch U.K. talent, and the producers have done that. In addition to Bell, the players include Burn Gorman as the local British commander and Angus Macfadyen as a grizzled mercenary with fungible loyalties.
Still, for all those neatly appointed trappings and period touches, “Turn” simply feels hollow at its core. And that, ultimately, is something even an accomplished spy ring can’t disguise.