AMC’s intriguing new drama “Turn,” about the invention of early-American espionage, follows the adventures of a little-known band of everyday 18th-century colonists — among them a farmer, a tavern owner, a smuggler — who are roped into spying during the Revolutionary War. Some more willingly than others.
Set two centuries before the fictional KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (of FX’s relentlessly action-packed “The Americans”) employed Space Invaders-era technology to get what they require, members of the covert Culper Ring in “Turn” decode British intelligence and alert one another with . . . well, petticoats hung a certain way on a clothesline.
And there billows “Turn’s” brilliance as well as its hurdles as a drama: The first episode (premiering Sunday night) launches a story that is not only compelling, but also about as close to true and historically accurate as any violent, sexy cable drama dares to get without drifting into the channel-changing territory of a guest lecture. The problem with that is a noticeable lack of recognizable, reassuring proof that “Turn” is what one might call a “holy [bleep!]” (or “WTF?!” if you prefer) kind of TV show.
That doesn’t bother me, but it might mean that less-patient watchers’ eyes will glaze over as “Turn” hunts for a balance between military history and the frantically modern way that TV tells stories about personal conflict.
It’s a tall order. Where I admire “Turn’s” ever-so-slight update to the style of stories about the War of Independence, others might find it not nearly snazzy enough. And while I think the main characters — performed by mostly youngish, barely known actors — are even more compelling because they actually existed, it remains to be seen if any of them become the sort of TV character you’d tweet about.
“Turn” (drawn from Alexander Rose’s 2006 book “Washington’s Spies” and created/produced by Craig Silverstein and Barry Josephson) begins in the autumn of 1776. The British army has taken over New York, and like others in the tiny Long Island village of Setauket, cabbage farmer Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) and his wife Mary (Meegan Warner) have been forced to billet a British soldier in their small home.
“If one redcoat in the house is as close as [the war] comes to us, then I shall thank the Lord and be done with it,” Abe tells Mary.
He’s ambivalent about the war and adverse to overt acts of patriotism — not because he doesn’t sympathize, but because he’s under constant surveillance from his father (Kevin R. McNally), the town magistrate who has acquiesced to British rule and rats on lawless patriots to Major Hewlett, the British garrison commander (a terrifically snide Burn Gorman).
The first few episodes are built around a fast-moving chain of events, the outcomes of which aren’t made entirely clear for a casual viewer, except that it means Abe becomes a secret spy for the patriots while kowtowing to the British officers all around him, especially the cruelly ambitious Capt. Simcoe (Samuel Roukin).
Abe learns that some of his oldest friends from childhood — including the love of his life, Anna Strong (Heather Lind) — are very quietly helping Washington’s army spy on the redcoats, risking their lives in the process. Once you “boil a lobster,” as Abe’s friend Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) puts it, you get a desire to boil them all.
Early standouts in the cast include Henshall’s wild-eyed, twitchily fun work as Caleb, Setauket’s outlier and world explorer, and the only character so far who really makes a convincing case for liberty. The show’s other runaway performance comes from Roukin’s Simcoe, with his high-pitched, tauntingly British insults, which have a wicked, chilling effect. (One wonders if it’s intentional that at “Turn’s” beginning, all but one of the best-written, best-acted parts are enemies.)
Less compelling is Seth Numrich as Ben Tallmadge — the dragoon officer who initially forms the Culper Ring. It’s a starring role, but the character as written and performed is a tad too museum mannequin.
Despite some stiffness (and a whole lot of words crammed into the characters’ mouths, hastily delivered in an array of accents) “Turn” succeeds in making the War of Independence seem like a vital and fresh saga, populated by characters who’d be as comfortable in today’s hipster Brooklyn as they are sneaking into the redcoat-occupied Brooklyn Harbor seen in the show.
But the show struggles to lay out its characters and conflicts in a way that feels instantly addictive. When it comes to igniting a new drama on competitive Sunday nights, “Turn’s” use of nuance and intrigue is both a hindrance and a handicap. (That sort of thing doomed another AMC drama about sublime spying, the gone-too-soon “Rubicon” in 2010.)
In many ways, “Turn’s” story of the revolution is the American story we revere (no pun intended) and treasure. In other ways, “Turn” presents what will for some be a departure from the usual narrative, particularly when its heroes doubt the cause, as well as their chances. “I wasn’t taking sides,” Abe tells his father at one point. “I was just trying to do right.”
“Try harder,” his father warns him.
That ambivalent and uncertain nature is what feels most original here — as well as the fact that this story occurs far outside the monumental circle of founding fathers, statesmanlike oratory and treasured parchment. In striving to portray the war’s effect on everyday people, I wish “Turn” gave a stronger reassurance that it intends to tell the stories of the black slaves and women (beyond Lind’s fine work as Anna Strong) who exist only in the margins of American history, where short shrift is all too common.
In the most subtle way, “Turn” is an eerily relevant show for present-day contexts, where constitutional idolatry and the Patriot Act transpire alongside radical document-sharing and Wikileaking.
Where HBO’s superior “John Adams” miniseries in 2008 so beautifully depicted the intellectual gestation of American ideas, “Turn” is nearly as meticulous in its desire to be a grass-roots action story of how the nation came to be. Its red-white-and-blue patriotism has been muted in favor of something that feels more human in scope.
(90 minutes) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC .