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'Turn' review: LI's lord of the spy ring

JJ Feild stars as John Andre in "Turn."

JJ Feild stars as John Andre in "Turn." Credit: AMC / Antony Platt


WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In Setauket, a young father and husband, Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell), assumes the Revolutionary War raging to the north and west has little to do with him -- until his cabbage crop fails and a captain in His Majesty's service is murdered. Suspicion falls upon Abe, who also needs to pay off a pressing debt. A smuggling run across the Sound to Connecticut lands him squarely in a nest of patriots, who "turn" him. They need "eyes" on British transport movements, especially into New York. Anna Strong (Heather Lind), wife of Abe's debtor, conspires with him to design a series of signals, and the "Culper" ring is born. And this: Abe's father, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin McNally), is a staunch Tory. The series is based on "Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring" by Alexander Rose.

MY SAY Glance out a window wherever you may be at this moment, and there, once upon a time, history was unfolding. Redcoats and loyalists controlled most of Long Island. Connecticut was a hotbed of insurrectionist troublemakers, and several major battles of the Revolution took place just across from Manhattan, to the east, west and north. Drama -- maybe even drama that would change the course of history -- was outside that window.

OK, maybe not all the windows, but you get the idea: The colonies that would one day comprise the "tristate area" were full of intrigue and danger. That's reasonably apparent from the first three "Turn" episodes provided for review. This is a thoughtful, dutiful historic drama filled with all the requisite period details and British accents, too. But what's missing here, glaringly so, are passion and sweep -- a sense that the great cycles of history are moving, and these men and women are the ones making them move. "Turn" isn't particularly interested in the broader scope of the war, which is where the real action was -- the battles, the giant personalities like George Washington or Lord Howe.

Instead, the major protagonist is Abe, a classic AMC hero beset with moral ambiguity and a debt he can't pay. He's supposed to be the everyman spy, torn by conflicting loyalties, and a father who cares more about his own legacy than his country's. But, as a character, he's taciturn, ascetic and brooding -- the guy at a party you want to avoid. Bell's portrayal of the spy who remains "in the cold" for the duration of the war may be accurate. That doesn't make him a particularly engaging TV character -- and he's not.

BOTTOM LINE Intelligent drama absent passion and the sweep of history.


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