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Review: AMC takes a stately approach with 'Turn'

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Slowly they return, the clean-shaven, square-jawed heroes of yore, displaced for so many years now by their darker, more intricately conflicted brethren — the detectives with one foot on either side of the law, the pill-popping acerbic doctors and philandering, power-mad family men. The broadcast networks pivoted first; the leads of shows like NBC's "Grimm," Fox's "Sleepy Hollow" and ABC's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." are good guys through and through.

Now AMC, the fledgling powerhouse that branded itself with the moral ambiguity of "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," and the bleak and ever-shifting convictions of "The Walking Dead," is entering the straight-up hero business. And not just any straight-up heroes, either; the original, the archetypal, the American classic: The heroes of the Revolutionary War.

"Turn," which premieres Sunday, refers to the politics and plight of historic figure Abe Woodhull (here played by "Billy Elliot's" now-grown Jamie Bell), a mild-mannered cabbage farmer who finds himself at the center of this nation's first spy ring. But the one-word title could also refer to AMC's sudden shift away from the mostly postmodern stories that marked its initial programming.

PHOTOS: A look at AMC's Colonial drama 'Turn'

"Turn" is not a deeply etched psychological portrait of man struggling with identity and inner demons. It's a good old-fashioned historical action drama in which the bad guys are clearly marked — they're wearing red! — and the stakes are as high as they get (life, liberty, etc.).

It's also surprisingly sedate, though that may be as much a function of contrast as quality. In a landscape dominated by genre shows like "The Walking Dead," HBO's "Game of Thrones" and the glorious Colonial-themed insanity of "Sleepy Hollow," any five-minute period that is not punctuated by a beheading, disemboweling or the bite of a supernatural creature can seem oddly slow these days.

Executive producer Craig Silverstein knows enough about modern TV to open big and visceral: While resting after a victory, a group of Loyalist mercenaries, led by Scotsman Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen), idly watch as one of their number ruthlessly bayonets the wounded rebels — and he adds the now-requisite 3-D blood spatters to battle scenes. But "Turn," which is based on the creation of the Culper Ring as described in "Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring" by Alexander Rose, seems determined to forgo the usual embellishments of gore and fornication.

Though blessed with as square a jaw as any and secretly sympathetic to the rebel cause, Woodhull has spent the early months of the uprising with his head down and his eyes on his Long Island cabbage crop. He may quietly seethe as his town of Setauket becomes a garrison, while his Loyalist father (Kevin McNally) exchanges quips and quotes with the resident British officer, Maj. Hewlett (Burn Gorman) and his childhood sweetheart, Anna (Heather Lind), is forced to serve ale to loutish redcoats, but Abe has a wife and infant son to protect. Surely this ill-fated rebellion will be over soon, now that Gen. Washington has been driven from New York.

But push inevitably comes to shove, and Abe is recruited by old friend Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich) to create a rebel spy system. Cowed by his father, longing to do the right thing but unsure of what that is, Abe wavers this way and that, but the hero will out, if only to impress the rebellious Anna, who hisses "Why not?" when he originally assures her he will not get involved.

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Oh, and forget your PBS/BBC America-fed fondness for the Brits. With the possible exception of the essentially decent though wearily supercilious Hewlett, every redcoat/Loyalist in sight is some sort of arrogant sadist or other.

With its Everyman hero, proto-feminist heroine and dastardly antagonists, "Turn" appears, at times, overly tailored. Masterful historic re-creations, with their emphasis on flawed waste management and primitive medical care, have become so commonplace that the orderly Colonial farms and even nascent New York appear more quaint than exciting. The leads of HBO's miniseries "John Adams" were more glamorous, those of History's miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys" were grittier, but the first episode of "Turn" moves with the overly controlled precision of the British army.

But the acting is universally fine (Macfadyen steals every scene he's in), the twists of plot reveal the often arbitrary nature of heroism, and if the show remains true to history, there will be more than one turning as the story advances.

More important, the statelier pace reminds us how unruly our notions of "action" have become, how demanding of gunfire and twitchy monologues. The birth of this nation was, in many ways, historically miraculous, the work of a relatively small group of people against all odds and without the aid of dragons.

That doesn't mean "Turn" will be great television, but it's worth giving it enough room to be judged on its own terms.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Turn'

Where: AMC

When: 9 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: Not rated

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