It’s not easy to put together a decent TV series that’s also a period piece. The old-fashioned costumes, the dated manners and ye olde language, the elaborate set design — they’re all extra difficulties on top of the usual TV challenges, most notably the holy-grail challenge of finding good writing.
So “Turn,” AMC’s new 1778-set Revolutionary War drama, deserves some credit. About the ring of American spies helping General George Washington against the British on Long Island, the show is different from most of prime time and it’s fine, just fine. It’s artfully strewn with enough red coats, big buttons, white wigs, and puffy shirts to make you almost feel as if you’re looking at a John Trumbull painting.
But “Turn” is nonetheless a far cry from the likes of “Mad Men,” “Rome,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Vikings,” “Deadwood,” and the early years of “Downton Abbey,” all period TV dramas that not only look great but also transport you into another time and place. Those shows have the kind of intimacy and inner life that have made movies such as “12 Years a Slave” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” so much more than surface achievements. They seem to bring us into close proximity with the psychology and spirit of another age. By comparison, “Turn” is flat.
Based on “Washington’s Spies” by Alexander Rose, “Turn” follows Abe Woodhull, a cabbage farmer with a wife and infant. Played by Jamie Bell, best known for his starring role in the movie “Billy Elliot,” Abe is a polite family guy who doesn’t want to engage in politics. But due to financial woes, a father who works closely with the British, and childhood friends who’ve become radicalized, Abe is ultimately pulled into the fray and becomes a spy for the Americans. The supersized 90-minute premiere, Sunday at 9, establishes his transformation and the forming of the famed Culper spy ring with workmanlike storytelling and no unexpected layers or twists.
One of the best pleasures of another period TV spy drama, FX’s “The Americans,” is the twisty revelation of split loyalties and double-agenting. The characters on both sides of the fight for intelligence are ultimately conflicted, and therefore more or less sympathetic. In “Turn,” the characters are too obviously good or bad, with very little room in between for more interesting moral explorations. They’re all committed to one side or the other, and are either noble (American) or nasty (British) as a result.
There are a few romantic tangles afoot in “Turn,” of course. Abe is married to Mary (Meegan Warner), but he has long been in love with Anna (Heather Lind), to whom he was once engaged. Abe’s friend Caleb (Daniel Henshall), who has drawn Abe into spy service, also has a thing for Anna. In the premiere, at least, none of this emotional turmoil resonates; all the characters are essentially types, but especially the women, who range from quiet and dutiful to quiet and not as dutiful. Women weren’t universally generic and one-dimensional before the modern era, were they? Some period pieces make it seem that way, as they confuse reserve for character.
Thanks to “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” along with the first season of “The Killing,” AMC has become a channel of high expectations. At its best, the network delivers original, beautifully cinematic series that take their time moving forward, milking every step of the way for drama. Like “Hell on Wheels,” “Turn” isn’t up to that standard. It’s an ordinary look at an exceptional time in history.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.