J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Reviewing Every Twist and Turn

Last night saw the launch of A.M.C.’s new spy drama Turn, followed closely by the launch of my review of that show at Den of Geek. I don’t type that fast; I got an advance look at the first episode. So did Michael Schellhammer, and his review at the Journal of the American Revolution went up last week.

Turn was inspired by Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies, a history of the Culper Ring operating in British-occupied New York City and Long Island from 1778 to the end of the war. And by “inspired” I mean the creators took names and basic circumstances from that history and went off in their own direction to find drama. For example, the show begins in “Autumn 1776,” two years before the spy ring got organized. (And I’m not sure why.)

As the weeks pass, I’ll be supplying Den of Geek with reviews of more episodes and periodic articles about the history behind the show, hoping to help viewers keep them separate. I don’t want to criticize Turn’s makers for fictionalization when their job is to keep us watching. But I am interested in what the entertainment industry thinks is necessary for a compelling story.

For example, the real Abraham Woodhull wasn’t being tugged in different directions within his family; his father was a Patriot, but the show turned him into a Loyalist for drama. The real Abraham Woodhull was only ten years old when Anna Smith married, and there’s no evidence he carried a torch for her. The show is not only driven by their unfulfilled relationship, but it gives him a wife and baby boy for more drama.

If that drama becomes more compelling, especially in rounding out the characterizations of the British army antagonists, then I think Turn will fulfill the promise of its source material and production values.


EJWitek said...

Robert Rogers with a Scottish accent? Rogers was hardly a minor character; he was one of the most famous men in England and the colonies as a result of his exploits in the French and Indian War.
That aside, it was hardly compelling television, even if the production values were quite high.

J. L. Bell said...

I can't think of any character who's in accord with the historical record, but Rogers with his beard and accent indeed appears to have come in from another reality altogether. I'm viewing the show as fiction, and hoping it finds its narrative legs soon.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if you'd be writing about this and what you good folks thought about Turn. I thought a series based on the Culper Ring would be interesting so I turned it on. Well, it wasn't long before I turned it off. It seemed a bit bloody and gruesome right at the beginning (and this was without a real battle!). I know the Revolution was a war, but it might have been nice had they lead into that a bit more. I checked out your review (nicely done) - and it doesn't sound too compelling. To me it sounds like a normal Hollywood soap in revolutionary dress and with the spy angle worked in.

Maybe it's just me, but I'd rather see a show based more closely on the real history.

(it's Mollie, BTW, I'm just not signing in with Google)

J. L. Bell said...

I think the show's creators chose to include some military violence at the beginning and end of the pilot to emphasize the stakes of the plot—and to satisfy male viewers looking for action.

Trip said...

I'm a fan of the show so far. Not often do we get a show about the Revolution and even if it can't be accurate to every detail and has to take liberty with others, at least we can enjoy it. Accept for what it's worth, historical fiction based on real life events, take in the setting, the costumes and appreciate we have a history show (and not a reality show) to watch each Sunday!

Anonymous said...

Well, I'll keep an eye on J. L.'s reviews... if it gets better, who knows, I might tune in again. You may have a point there, Trip about it's good to have something other than a reality show. - M.