Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Pilot Review: Turn
Turn (Sundays at 9:00 on AMC)
There's a really great idea at the root of Turn, the newest period piece from AMC set during the American Revolution: what would a spy thriller look like set over two hundred years in the past? Unfortunately, that's the only question Turn's pilot episode answers. There's more time spent on the design and setting than on telling a gripping story, which leaves Turn feeling about as bland as its title.
Based on the nonfiction book Washington's Spies by Alexander Rose, Turn is as much a pastoral character drama as it is the story of America's first spy ring. Long Island farmer Abe Woodhull (BAFTA winner Jamie Bell in his first television role) is facing hard times when his latest crop of cabbages doesn't settle his owed debts. Abe is struggling to support his family, including an infant son, and to stay out of the war, made all the more difficult by the British soldiers occupying his home and his Loyalist father's (Kevin McNally) stronghold on his community. When he's caught stealing, Abe is persuaded to join the Culper Ring, a group of spies reporting British intel to George Washington, by his childhood friend Ben (Seth Numrich).
Most of the 90-minute pilot is spent establishing the 18th-century setting, with sweeping views of undeveloped land in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt does wonders with the camera in Turn's early moments by juxtaposing the vastness of the colonies with the intimacies of small-group living, made all the more stifling by the constant presence of soldiers. It's easy to see why Abe is overwhelmed and claustrophobic in his own home, in his own town, thanks to the overbearing presence of Redcoats. But when nearly half of the pilot trots by without much action, it becomes tedious. How many times can we watch Abe tend to his cabbages? How many conversations about cabbages are we meant to listen to? Where's the spying, the sneaking around, the awesome codes Nicolas Cage decrypted in National Treasure? That's the stuff we want to see from Turn, but we're instead given a slew of muted-palate scenes (despite the beautiful landscapes, there's not a hint of color aside from red, navy, and gray) about farming and taxation. Turn's major downfall is in all of its damn talking, when it would just be so much more interesting and exciting to cut to the chase... literally. Give me a chase scene or something.
The upside to all the talking is that the cast is top-notch. Bell is the perfect actor to portray an unassuming, upstanding everyman with intensity, and he's sweetly affecting in his scenes with both his wife and his former lover (another one of Turn's weaknesses is setting up this unnecessary love triangle for Abe). McNally is domineering and intimidating as Richard Woodhull. The British soldiers are a bit more campy, with Burn Gorman (Torchwood) playing a mustache-twirling Major (not literally, but he may as well) and Samuel Roukin sliming it up as Officer Simcoe. The remainder of the cast is strong as well, with the standout being Heather Lind as Anna Strong, a revolutionary in the word's truest sense. She's brave and smart and, well, strong, and her chemistry with Bell is the pilot's strongest. And if the creators are setting up her character to be a female presence in the otherwise completely male-heavy spy ring, I'm all for it. It would inject some life into the mostly dull proceedings of Turn.
It's so strange to me to think of Turn as "dull," but that's just the word that keeps popping into my head. There's barely a hint of intrigue in the introductory episode, which can be fine for world-building and character work, but tries my patience. Perhaps I'm just spoiled thanks to modern spy shows like Homeland and Nikita (which was created by Turn's developer, Craig Silverstein) and adventure films like the National Treasure series and The Da Vinci Code, but I'd like some action to go with my stealthiness, please.