At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, perhaps it’s time to temporarily retire the Revolutionary War as a dramatic TV backdrop. Following “Sons of Liberty,” the miniseries that presented history in the style of a beer commercial, comes the second season of “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” an AMC series that certainly looks handsome and draws on literary material but remains dramatically limp, despite near misses, turning doorknobs and other tricks of the espionage-on-screen trade. George Washington and Benedict Arnold are among this season’s historical supporting players, but barring the occasional flash, it’s not just the teeth that are wooden.
It’s 1777 as the second season begins, with the rebellious colonists under the leadership of Gen. Washington (Ian Kahn) reeling from the loss of Philadelphia to the British. As such, the efforts of spy Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) and his co-conspirators become especially important, as he pretends to be a loyal Tory while seeking to ferret out information about the occupying force’s plans.
The British, meanwhile, are engaged in their own counterespionage efforts, with intelligence chief John Andre (JJ Feild) seeing an opportunity to turn Arnold (Owain Yeoman), a bold officer who chafes against what he sees as a lack of recognition under Washington’s command.
The season is set in motion by a sculpture of King George that contains a message for Washington. The quest for that contraband becomes one of several plots introduced and inched along through the first four hours.
There are some nice elements, such as the infatuation of British officer Maj. Hewlett (Burn Gorman) with Anna (Heather Lind), who is working with Woodhull as part of the spy ring. There’s also the return of the venomous Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), so evil that he practically hisses out his dialogue.
The pieces, however, never quite add up to anything with enough cohesion or narrative flow. And despite unflinching bursts of violence — a throat-slitting here, a scalping there — the suspense is tempered by the setting and a realization how long the war will drag on, transforming some of the caper aspects into “Mission: Impossible” (the series, not the movies) in powered wigs and red coats.
AMC was wise to relaunch the show with a two-hour premiere, although the extra plot doesn’t do much to reel anyone back who didn’t stay loyal throughout the first season.
Give the network credit for gambling on a period series with obvious ambition, produced at considerable expense. Yet after the opening salvo of this second campaign, what kept coming to mind about “Turn” is that it also describes what somebody can readily do with a TV remote.