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
"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.
"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
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 (
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
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.
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.
When: 9 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday
Rating: Not rated