The second season of Turn: Washington’s Spies airs later tonight on AMC. Sadly, the show hasn’t received the attention it deserves with the always increasing saturation in the TV game. It has become increasingly difficult to pick out fish in the crowded barrel of television with streaming sources like Netflix, Hulu and now Yahoo! churning out their own content; HBO steaming ahead with their cadre of series led by Game of Thrones; and a slew of network stalwarts bumbling along with predictability if not creativity. These are bittersweet developments. With so many options to choose from we inevitably miss a few exceptional shows. Recently, I overheard a radio personality sum up the impact of this recent TV explosion: “if it’s not excellent, it’s not worth the time.” Sure, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, House of Cards and the rest of today’s lot may not show up on future Buzzfeed lists ranking the Top TV Shows of all time. But the TV Guide’s roster has never been so deep (is the TV Guide still around?). And really, I think we’d be surprised if some of today’s show’s don’t land on the lists of 2035. People have already dubbed our times the next “Golden Age of Television” and the new crop of releases can be weighed by both their quantity and their quality.
Looking back, we can see the sewing of this new crop in the years spent wrestling creative control and distribution away from the major networks. A complete look into this movement is a tale for another day but one of the newest heavyweight contenders is the cable power AMC. Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead alone would be enough to call the channel’s early 2000’s reformatting and push into original content a success. Spinoffs of their major series (Better Call Saul and Fear the Walking Dead) look to maintain the momentum but the real future lays in new series. Which is finally where Turn enters the stage.
Eschewing popular genres like crime dramas (The Blacklist, Sherlock, True Detective, Fargo), political dramas (House of Cards, The Good Wife, Scandal, Veep), pseudo-period pieces (Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Downtown Abbey, The Americans, The Last Man on Earth), and super-heroes (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Arrow, The Flash, Daredevil, Gotham), this newest show to appear in the possibly-still-around TV guide presents viewers with a drama centered around political criminals set in a different time period. Okay, so Turn may not be crossing uncharted waters, but it does stand out in the crowded list of current shows by offering at a look at a new time period (new if you ignore John Adams). One of its innovations is a storyline featuring a militarily superior force looking to maintain territory held by a weaker but savvier and more deceptive home team (which only sounds like the plot of Vikings). What really sets it apart is the story of a man struggling to maintain his marriage while clandestinely functioning as a spy deep within enemy territory (which is nothing like The Americans).
Jamie Bell stars as Abraham Woodhull, a Long Island cabbage farmer who must decide where his allegiances lay in a country split between the revolutionaries and those loyal to the King. At first Woodhull is content keeping his head down and tending to his cabbage and his new family. His simple hopes are thrown asunder when a great sickness destroys his crops.
Okay, the tale may be a bit more complicated than that of a man with a failed crop. Turn establishes nearly a dozen central characters including Woodhull’s Tory father, a handful of British officers, and a band of young Continental Army soldiers toiling to establish a spy ring deep in occupied New England. Not all of these characters are given the time needed to fully develop leaving them a bit more one-dimensional than the show may need in the long run. Woodhull’s character is requisitely given the most depth but even he leaves some to be desired. Make no mistake, Bell’s acting is excellent and elevates the occasionally lumbering script. Along with Bell, Heather Lind and Daniel Henshall both breathe fresh air into the entertaining but not revolutionary series (SIDE NOTE: Henshall is an early favorite to score a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Beard. As tradition dictates, the winner of that award will be announced exclusively on Flashback/Backslide next year).
In the end, Turn‘s first season cultivates only half of an origin story. A great deal of time is spent in the “turning” of Woodhull and in the development of Washington’s spy ring. It has the feeling of a show still finding its rhythm. Multiple overlapping storylines are threaded into the plot patchwork but not all feel as though they belong. The show belies the expectation of an elaborate spy ring whose mirrors are matched only by its smoke (an expectation partly built by the show’s catchy opening). By the end of the season this purported main story barely lifts off the ground. Despite this shortcoming (and the fact that I’ve been burned before by shows/films which failed to live up to their potentials), I have faith that Turn will come around. The series has the potential to create an intriguing web of characters featuring the lies and deception we all crave, no matter what genre we seek. Plus it has the added bonus of period warfare seen throughout Season 1 (most notably in an old-fashioned duel). I fully expect Season 2 to push the series into more fertile ground. Whether or not these developments will yield the results needed to maintain AMC’s momentum remains to be seen. At least we are seeing something new in the attempt.
P.S. Jamie Bell’s fine work here only excites me more for this year’s Fantastic Four reboot. I have not seen Bell in much but he was great in Snowpiercer. Putting him alongside Miles Teller and Kate Mara (my two favorite young stars) is pushing the movie to obscene expectation levels.