Our minds overflow with the sarsaparilla homebrew of the 1800s — the Victorian vampires, the Lincolnalia, the pop-chart jug bands. The late 19th century is on TV a lot: railroad barons in the West, amoral gold miners in the Klondike, Hatfields vs. McCoys in the hollers, serial killers with handlebar mustaches leaving slit-throated corpses to be examined by muttonchopped sleuths in steampunk notions of London and New York. Enough already.
Dial back further. How about the 1770s instead? Can the 18th century be made cool again? (Intriguing? Exciting in a cable TV drama sort of way?)
On a very long, very late Thursday afternoon several weeks ago on the set of AMC’s new patriot-spies thriller series, “Turn,” the cast and crew are in the middle of shooting the show’s sixth episode. Here at last comes an appearance by Gen. George Washington, played by a little known but certainly handsome 41-year-old stage and TV actor named Ian Kahn. In an ensemble cast as large as “Turn’s,” Washington is not the starring role; as the series begins he’s a faraway presence, a name whispered by his ring of spies and uttered with disgust by the redcoats trying to crush the American insurgents.
Now that he’s here, large as life, all thoughts of the dollar bill and Peale portraiture vanish. Kahn is wearing a wig and a uniform, yes, but there’s something else about this Washington. The women from the publicity department are quite pleased. It’s in his smooth, low voice; his stare, his jaw. Suddenly the concept hits you: George Washington as the new Don Draper?
“More smoke!” someone shouts between takes; the director wants the hazy approximation of afternoon light through the window panes, as Kahn and other cast members confer in Washington’s office over their next move against the British.
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One way or another, we seem to always find our way back to 1776.
It’s been a while, plus a little while longer, if you’re old enough to remember the Bicentennial fervor of 40 years ago: the polyester bell-bottoms and three-point hats and the Betsy Ross bunting on everything. Washington crossing the Delaware to sell you a used Buick; Life, Liberty and “Have it Your Way” at Burger King; your social studies teacher’s husband dressed as Ben Franklin (kite optional), dropping by to tell the class how our great nation came to be. Do you really want to go there?
We the people scream and yell a lot these days about the intent of the Founding Fathers, but the truth is, what most of us know (or think we know) about the War of Independence fits easily into a “Schoolhouse Rock” song.
But “Turn,” which premieres next Sunday night, asks its audience to regard the revolution as a far more complicated period than most of us learned about as children. In its first episode, the show upends the idea that everyone living in the colonies joined the fight for independence from the crown. (“Schoolhouse Rock” again: “Take your powder, take your gun / Report to General Washington.”) We tend to think patriotism was an easy choice to make. We have no feel for the reluctance, the secret terror involved when you picked a side.
“That’s what I’m sort of hoping that people will be drawn to,” says Craig Silverstein, “Turn’s” executive producer and showrunner. “The ambivalence. We’ve developed an inferiority complex about our shared history — that everyone in  was so noble, so heroic. . . . Now, with all this infighting about who [Americans] were then and with people on both sides of politics invoking the Founding Fathers, it’s very comforting to discover, ‘Oh, God, the country was a huge mess.’ We’re not so different from the colonists. We’re grappling with a lot of the same problems. That’s always a theme that I’m 100 percent behind.”
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It’s a 105-mile drive down Interstate 95 on a shatteringly frigid day in late January. Exit like you’re headed for NASCAR’s Richmond International Raceway, and there, lost among the trees and hills, o’er yonder office park and trucking warehouses, you’ll eventually come upon a low-lying hulk of a building that was once used by the Internal Revenue Service. Or could that just be TV-producer apocrypha, meant as an ironic detail? A show depicting America’s tumultuous birth filmed here, in cavernous spaces that once housed the dreary bureaucracy of taxation?
The first season of “Turn” takes place in the autumn and winter of 1776-77, in New York City, Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. The Commonwealth of Virginia, hitching its skirts with Hollywood tax breaks, was picked to play all those places; hardly any TV show is ever shot where the story is actually set.
The “Turn” crew was able to repurpose some exterior sets left behind by Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” crew. They shot battle scenes in nearby woods. The James River doubled as the history-making Delaware and, in another small dose of irony, kept freezing over in the record cold snap during a nighttime shoot, preventing one of the show’s stars from hurling himself into it for a key scene.
“Turn” is about a relatively little-known but crucial band of spies known as the Culper Ring. They were everyday citizens living in British-occupied villages near New York — farmers, innkeepers — who were quietly recruited by Washington and his officers and who more or less helped invent the American age of espionage. The current context — Edward Snowden, the NSA, the counterterrorism culture — couldn’t be more helpful to the marketing department.
With considerable style and attention to detail, “Turn’s” characters, nearly all of whom exist in historical footnotes, have been subtly nudged and shaped into patriotic disrupters, with an intriguing result: In 2014, the American Revolution feels fresh, young and just slightly hip again.
Twenty-eight-year-old English actor Jamie Bell (best known from his boyhood in the title role in “Billy Elliot”) stars as Abraham Woodhull, a cabbage farmer in Setauket, Long Island, who is pressured by his lifelong friends to join their spy ring. Among them is Ben Tallmadge (played by 27-year-old American stage actor Seth Numrich), a dragoon in Washington’s Connecticut army; Caleb Brewster (31-year-old Australian actor Daniel Henshall), a peripatetic adventurer who becomes Tallmadge’s courier; and Anna Strong (31-year-old American actor Heather Lind), the village tavern owner who was once engaged to Abe.
“Abe Woodhull was scared,” Silverstein says. “He wasn’t super brave. I could see myself there, in his position. It’s hard to place myself as a cavalryman charging into battle, but that guy I could see, I could relate to.”
Barry Josephson, one of “Turn’s” executive producers, says he was itching for years to do a movie about Nathan Hale, the Continental Army soldier who was caught spying and executed by the British, barely two months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, Josephson said he found himself absorbed by “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring,” a dry but fascinating 2006 book by historian Alexander Rose.
Rose had initially set about researching Benedict Arnold, the original American turncoat, but instead became interested in a a seldom-examined trove of correspondence between Washington and the Culper Ring.
In their roundabout ways, Josephson and Rose had each separately discovered the fundamental rule of being a good spy: If your name became historically famous for spying, then you weren’t all that good at spying. That we’ve hardly heard of them is a testament to the Culper Ring’s success. Like FX’s “The Americans,” the whole idea of “Turn” hinges on that desperate need for secrecy. It’s about double agents, triple agents, widespread mistrust.
Josephson took the idea to Silverstein, whose last big show was CW’s “Nikita.” Silverstein read Rose’s book and fairly quickly wrote a character-driven treatment to pitch to AMC. Silverstein said he was drawn to the idea that the spies are making it up as they go along — inventing codes and signals and methods. “These guys are fumbling their way through it,” he says. “It’s a story about the formation of our country, but it’s also the formation of something we all love — the spy genre.”
It’s not easy to sell a network on a period drama set in a period that no one else has paid much attention to lately (save for HBO’s critical success with its “John Adams” miniseries in 2008); harder still to sell it to audiences when the premise for “Turn” has a way of sounding like AP History homework. Men over 50 will watch just about anything having to do with U.S. military history, but will anyone else?
“Turn” is an expensive risk for AMC, which has several new series in development now, in search of its next big hit. The network has a solid winner in “The Walking Dead” but recently bid farewell to “Breaking Bad” and will start airing the penultimate half of “Mad Men’s” final season on April 13.
The closest thing the network has to “Turn” might be “Hell on Wheels,” a drama set against Reconstruction Era railroad expansion; that show (which is very different from “Turn” in tone and mood) will return this summer for a fourth season, but has never attained the elusive level of buzz that all cable dramas crave.
Everyone involved with “Turn” knows the first few episodes will be a steep climb for viewers. They also know that today’s more sophisticated TV viewer is good at paying attention — sometimes too good — but that his or her Sunday nights are largely spoken for. It’s tough to get on the must-DVR list.
The show’s plot is complicated by design, obeying the conventions of multi-layered, difficult-people-making-difficult-choices drama genre. The politics and events are cloaked in nuance, and, as it probably was in the 1770s, the American characters are still in search of a somewhat common Yankee accent, talking in hybrid mixes of English, Irish, Scottish, Australian — call them “whatever accents,” it’s easy to miss what they’re saying. “Turn’s” writers have leaned heavily on a guide to 18th-century slang and phrases, Silverstein says, as they seek to make the American characters sound more like people and less like the authors of the letters they wrote back and forth 238 years ago.
After a recent red-carpet premiere that AMC threw at the National Archives, a few audience members tell me they loved the look and feel of “Turn” — the youthful cast, the rudimentary methods of spycraft — but aren’t quite sure they followed the plot.
At a panel discussion moderated by ABC News’s Martha Raddatz, former CIA director Michael V. Hayden expresses delight that “Turn” celebrates the roots of American espionage — spying on other countries, spying on one another — a value he says is as fundamental to our national character as baseball and apple pie. (“Nice try,” Raddatz replies.) The crowd moves upstairs for a cocktail reception, within tempting sight of the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, where they keep the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution on display. If nothing else, watching “Turn” makes you want a fresh look at those.
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As with any number of American-made shows, most of “Turn’s” cast members aren’t American and aren’t familiar to American audiences — they come from England, Scotland, Australia. “We didn’t do one day of the American Revolution in school,” says British actor JJ Feild, 35, who plays John André, the head of British army’s own, more sophisticated spy ring. “The end of the empire is not taught much. . . . I remember I wrote a paper on the American massacre of Indians, though.”
“I knew almost nothing about it, other than we lost,” says Bell, who has spent time with his wife, Evan Rachel Wood, exploring Williamsburg and other nearby historical sites.
Deep within the “Turn” studio space, crews have designed, built and decorated interior sets of houses, a barn, a surprisingly vivid campsite in the woods, a tavern, war rooms, sitting rooms, dining rooms and, not the least of it, a small body of water upon which to float lifesize boats against a special-effects green screen.
Costume designer Donna Zakowska has a wall of ideas and sketches and fabrics that guided her thinking about how the characters of “Turn” should look. She won an Emmy for her work on “John Adams” and had been prescient enough to squirrel away a supply of red British army coats in case the need ever came up.
“Turn,” Zakowska says, required her to think beyond the military uniforms and the more official garb we associate with the Founding Fathers. “You have the historical [drawings and paintings] and then to a certain degree, you have to use your instinct,” she says.
She mulled over several looks for Robert Rogers (played by “Braveheart’s” Angus Macfadyen) and his mercenary band of Queens’ Rangers (“Savage and a little wild,” she says) as well as a look for Caleb Brewster that references piratey pantaloons and frontiersman grunge.
To a person, the show’s actors all say the costumes and the sets take them only so far; the rest is about imagining the people. Samuel Roukin, a 33-year-old British actor, plays Capt. John Graves Simcoe, the show’s breakout villain; the long gaiters he wears puts him in the mind of an SS soldier. “I like them for [Simcoe]. And the wig! You forget that you have it on.”
Meegan Warner, a 22-year-old Australian actress, had hardly been to the United States when she was cast as Abe’s wife, Mary Woodhull. She also says she knew next to nothing about the American Revolution. (Don’t worry, dear. A lot of Americans also know next to nothing about the American Revolution.)
There was a day of exterior shooting early on, Warner recalls, when she was standing in the middle of faux-Setauket with a baby in her arms, with “everyone in costume, and there are horses and chickens and dogs and then you feel it.” The show had, on the budget allowed and with considerable effort, shifted time. “It’s crazy. Then the crew [members] are the ones who look out of place,” Warner says. And then someone yells cut and the moment passes and you just want out of that suffocating corset.
If it’s possible for an entire show to hinge on a hat, “Turn” owes a considerable debt to Zakowska’s decision in the pilot episode to place on Abe Woodhull’s head what looks, at first, like a plain knit cap — the kind you see on young men everywhere today, year round. Like “Turn,” the hat had both an 18th-century veracity and a 21st-century energy. “There has to be a sexiness to all this,” Zakowska says. “It’s not a re-enactment piece.”
The hat does in those scenes what “Turn” needs most. It gives old history new life.
(90 minutes) premieres Sunday, April 6,
at 9 p.m. on AMC.