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'Turn' on AMC centers around Revolutionary War LI spy ring

Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) in AMC's drama "Turn."

Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) in AMC's drama "Turn." Credit: AMC / Frank Ockenfels 3

Setauket is about to get a national TV close-up, but it's totally unrecognizable. There in the distance, from a low-slung hill, is the peaceful expanse of the harbor, with just one boat at anchor -- a two-master of indeterminate design or vintage. A cluster of buildings crowds the shore, while over them looms a windmill, its huge blades thumping in the breeze. No cars, no roads, only the greens and blues of a bygone world filled with cows, Tories, Redcoats and ... spies.

Craig Silverstein, executive producer of AMC's new Revolutionary War drama series, "Turn" (premiering Sunday at 9 p.m.), based on the Culper Spy Ring, readily admits the view will be unfamiliar to modern eyes -- a special-effects job pieced together from computer bytes, real scenery (from around Richmond, Va.) along with a few local details collected by producers on scouting missions.

"We digitally created Long Island," he says, noting that all the other visual flourishes were collected in northern Virginia, "where they have a lot of great, old, standing historic buildings."

This Long Island of the deep past only begins to hint at the challenges facing a Revolutionary War TV drama based on an obscure, if important, spy ring. Most of that past has been expunged -- or, more bluntly, paved over -- while so much of the historical minutiae, from how people fought this long-ago war here to how the average person lived in a place like Setauket in 1778, has been lost to time as well.

THE REAL STORY The Culper Spy Ring, headed by Setauket cabbage farmer Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell of "Billy Elliot"), was virtually ignored by historians until the 1930s, and only recently the subject of two books, "George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution," by Fox News host Brian Kilmeade; and "Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring," by Alexander Rose, upon which "Turn" is based.

The story, says Silverstein, is complicated, even if the basics are not: Woodhull, on a smuggling run to Connecticut, which was controlled by patriots, was caught by soldiers in Gen. Washington's army and eventually "turned" to become a spy. Washington needed eyes on British-held Long Island and New York. The task fell to Woodhull and other locals who will people this intricate tale.

Dramas based in the Revolutionary War era are exceedingly rare on TV, the last being 2008's HBO miniseries, "John Adams." Cost is certainly a factor: An entirely reimagined metropolitan area (much of the series takes place in Connecticut and New York City) doesn't come cheap.

Silverstein, in a recent phone interview, points to another factor: Historically, the war "was a very protracted and whitewashed story."

"The reality is much more complicated," he says. "It's been revised and simplified, made more into a David versus Goliath; it needs to be 'Schoolhouse Rock' . But great drama is about the truth, and if you want to tell the 'Schoolhouse Rock' tale of the Revolution, they sense that somehow everyone couldn't have been so impossibly brave, so impossibly noble." A theme of AMC's "Turn" is that the houses here are quite literally divided against themselves: father against son, wife against husband. Families were torn by conflicting loyalties, even on Long Island, where Loyalist sympathies prevailed. That's "Turn's" story, as much as the story of "aliases, cover stories, dead drops, the 'black budget and a lot of cryptography' invested by the Culper Ring."

As its signature series, "Mad Men," comes to an end next year, AMC has dozens of shows in development, and, like eclectic, against-the-grain "Turn," no two are alike. Silverstein says that's the idea: "If you look at 'The Walking Dead,' that's pretty different from 'Mad Men,' which was pretty different from 'Breaking Bad.' Maybe the theory here is, 'Let's not try to repeat ourselves.'" By that standard, "Turn" certainly qualifies.

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