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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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Season of Turn

The A.M.C. television series Turn reached the end of its first season Sunday, and I filed my review of that episode at Den of Geek. Earlier in the week the website published my article on Maj. Richard Hewlett, which I wrote before guessing that the Battle of Setauket, New York, would provide the climax for the season.

My whole collection of writing about the show is linked from here. I tried to avoid spoiling the big revelations in each episode in case you’re still catching up. Also, check out Rachel Smith’s Turn to a Historian blog for excellent analysis of the historical facts behind—in many cases, almost invisible in the distance behind—the show.

Early on in the show’s run I had to reconcile myself to the many historical liberties the show’s creators had taken, from launching the Culper Ring in 1776 to giving two principal characters anachronistic bushy beards as a way to signal they stood outside ordinary norms and differentiate them from the other men. There are so many deviations from the historical record or historiographical questions to point out that those essays could fill a season unto themselves.

But I realized that simply noting those changes was not unlike pointing out that Bucky Barnes died while trying to stop Baron Zemo’s rocket, and not by falling off a train as in the new Captain America movies. That may be true—hey, it is true—but not in the “Marvel movie continuity.”

Similarly, it seemed wiser to consider the Turn continuity to reflect a different universe from the real one. The same characters were playing the same basic roles in the same basic storylines, but they looked different, the timeline was changed, and knowledge about one world didn’t necessarily apply in the other. Given the cast-limiting budget, the show’s production values, use of period music, and generally strong performances kept it generally entertaining.

My biggest disappointment with Turn, therefore, wasn’t with the historical accuracy but with the way some characters’ motivations seemed to shift as the plot demanded. The character at the center, Abe Woodhull, is obviously torn in several directions—politically, romantically, familially. But his choices remained so opaque that, for instance, his getting involved in a duel seemed to be driven more by the producers’ thought that a duel would be dramatic than by anything we’d seen Abe do up to that point. Secondary characters worked better since they could be “flat,” in E. M. Forster’s formulation, and maintain their motivation.

It’s not clear whether there will be a second season of Turn. Certainly there’s plenty of inspiration available: Gen. Benedict Arnold’s name keeps coming up, and we haven’t yet seen the spy inside New York City who operated as “Samuel Culper, Jr.” The show could also shift its focus to Philadelphia in 1777-78 with another set of spies; Benjamin Tallmadge and John André were there, too. But to get to do any of that Turn has to satisfy viewers with good character-driven drama.


John Johnson said...

There were parts of Turn that I really liked, and parts of Turn that really felt disjointed.

It seemed to me that either the producer or the show runner really isn't sure what they want the show to be, and that's reflected in the way the episodes have bounced all over.

For me the strongest episodes were the first three episodes and then episode number six "Mr Culpeper" where we meet Mr. Sacket. (By coincidence that one also happened to be the most historically accurate too.)

I think the consensus among fans of the show (and something I certainly agree with) is less soap opera story lines involving Abe and Annah's love lives and more spying and Revolutionary War action and drama.

J. L. Bell said...

I also liked the episode introducing Sackett and showing us Washington. And I didn't mind the way the show jumped around among its many storylines.

But I think that the central character, Abe Woodhull, was either underwritten or underacted.