Television seems, these days, to have a fascination with history and period drama, particularly that period of history when America was still fighting for its independence. And why not? History brought to life can be exciting and even riveting. Fox’s hit Sleepy Hollow plays with Washington Irving’s tale of Ichabod Crane, mashing his story up with the legend of George Washington’s Bible and a contemporary mystery genre series. Starz’s Black Sails is set even earlier, drawing upon historical figures from the Golden Age of Pirates living in the Bahamas. Now, cable network AMC (Mad Men, The Walking Dead) has debuted a new primetime drama set during the Revolutionary War; it is called Turn.
Starring British actor Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as Abraham Wudhull, Turn is based on the real history of America’s first spy ring — the Culper Ring, and on the 2007 book Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose. With a very large cast, the series takes a little while to get going (only two episodes have aired so far), but by the end of the second episode, I was hooked. The pilot episode takes some time (and probably a bit too much exposition) to get into the real action of the series.
Abraham is a farmer. The son of a local magistrate, he wishes independence from his loyalist father, with whom he has an uneasy relationship. It is 1776, and with the war swirling about him in the small backwater town of Setauket on the North Shore of Long Island, Abraham wants only to get by and raise his young son. He seems apolitical until events (and some peer pressure) sweep him into a plan to gain intelligence from the British soldiers billeted in the small town.
There is tension between Loyalist colonists, the rebels who fight for independence, the British battalion based in Setauket (led by Major Hewlett, and played by Torchwood‘s Burn Gorman), and a group of Loyalist mercenaries called the Queen’s Rangers, led by Robert Rogers (Angus MacFayden). The story is enriched by the knowledge that all these characters come from history, although, obviously their stories have been fictionalized for the sake of good storytelling.
There is also interpersonal conflict, as we learn that Abraham had once loved the savvy Anne Strong, but due to her political views, the match had been frowned upon, and instead he wed the quiet, grave Mary. Anne, now married to Selah, a man with revolutionary views still has feelings for Abraham, and it is quite mutual. But when both Abraham and Selah are accused of injuring a puffed up Redcoat, Selah is transported, while Abraham, with his family connections is set free.
A lot of the pilot is set up: the tension between old friends, most of whom have joined the revolution, tension between Abraham and his father, wife, and ex-lover Anne. In the meantime, the plot also establishes the villains: a cruel Redcoat named Captain John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) and Robert Rogers, while beginning to tease out the real action of the story: Abraham’s recruitment into the nascent Culper Ring, led by Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich).
Even if the pilot drags a bit, the second episode makes up for it, and I have high hopes for the new historical series. Tapping into an obscure piece of early American History, Turn is full of possibilities. Its unfortunate time slot, however, opposite another costumer of which you might have heard called Game of Thrones, might hurt its chances to move beyond a first season. On the other hand, AMC has scheduled the series to run both before and after the iconic Mad Men as it airs its final season.
Turn airs Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. on AMC and is also available to stream.
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