Based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies, AMC’s TURN tells the untold story of America’s first spy ring. A historical thriller set during the Revolutionary War, TURN centers on Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell), a farmer living in British-occupied Long Island who bands together with his childhood friends to form The Culper Ring -- an unlikely team of secret agents who not only went on to help George Washington turn the tide of the war but also gave birth to modern spycraft.
After watching Season 1 of 'Turn: Washington's Spies', it occurred to me that this might be the best TV series ever made about the Revolutionary War. Not that 'Turn' is fantastic, it's just that aside from some TV movies and the occasional mini-series, I can't think of the last TV show that addressed this part of history on a consistent ongoing basis – and that's certainly to this show's advantage, as it really is like nothing else on TV right now.
Instead of giving viewers the expected historical story, the creators of 'Turn' have decided to delve into the little-known but incredibly important Culper Ring, an undercover spy organization formed by George Washington and his soldiers for the purpose of reporting back the activities of the British Army in and around the New York City area. 'Turn' focuses its story on Abraham Woodhull (Jaime Bell), who would use the name 'Samuel Culper' as his alias, and was the primary figure in the spy organization.
Turning against the British Crown, however, is the least of Woodhull's problems as Season 1 unfolds. He's gotten married to his dead brother's fiancé, Mary (Meegan Warner), in order to respect his father's wishes (her prior engagement was part of a prearranged marriage), but he's still very much in love with his former fiancé, Anna (Heather Strong), who is helping his spy efforts as well. To make matters worse, Abe's father, Judge Richard Woodhill (Kevin McNally), is loyal to the Brits, and forces his son to make a public oath to the Crown when he becomes suspicious of his activities in the series' pilot episode. The tension and suspicion will continue throughout much of this first season.
The series also devotes significant screen time to the story of Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), an officer in Washington's army who finds himself in trouble early on in Season 1, when a superior officer catches him torturing a British prisoner in order to get information out of him. But don't worry, folks, Ben is actual really a good guy and one of the heroes of this series…he's a childhood friend of Abe and the one who helps recruit him (reluctantly at first) into the spy ring.
As interesting as the template is for the writers of 'Turn' (which is based on a book by Alexander Rose), it's not without its share of clichés and mistakes. While the series seems to go out of its way to make the period setting look correct, with accurate uniforms, weaponry, maps, and the like, it also makes silly mistakes, such as having the character sing 'Spanish Ladies' at the conclusion of one episode, even though that song didn't become popular (and, in fact, probably even exist) until a few decades after the events depicted here. Another issue I had was with the spoken dialogue, which tries to stay in the period, but often diverts to language that seems very modern for characters living in the 1700s. There's also the problem that so many movies based on the Revolutionary War have: it basically depicts almost every (but, to its credit, not all) British soldiers as heartless and evil. Yes, it may be anti-American of me to want to see some humanity in the British during the Revolutionary War, but let's be honest – these guys weren't the Nazis – yet they always seem to be depicted as such in American adaptations such as 'Turn'. This series could benefit from less black and white and more grey when it comes to its characters.
Keeping the above in mind, though, 'Turn' actually is pretty engaging – although it's really not the type of series that one will find themselves revisiting after watching each episode. That, plus the fact that this series set doesn't offer a whole lot in terms of bonus materials, prevents me from giving it a high recommendation, but not from me suggesting that you take time to check it out. It's an entertaining look at a period of history from an angle that nobody has tacked in the past.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Turn' sneaks its way onto Blu-ray in an Elite keepcase, which houses the three 50GB discs, with the second disc in the set being held on an attached plastic hub. There are two inserts inside the case, one containing an advertisement for the final episodes of 'Man Men', and the other containing a code for an Ultraviolet copy of all the episodes in this set. The Blu-ray case slides inside a cardboard holder containing the same artwork as the keepcase's slick. Disc 1 of this set is front-loaded with advertisements for the final season of 'Mad Men' and for the AMC series 'Halt and Catch Fire'. There are no front-loaded trailers on either of the other discs. The main menu consists of a montage of footage from the first season, with menu selections running across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-rays in this release are Region A-locked.
'Turn' was shot digitally on Arri Alexa equipment. The results are similar to what we find with other shows shot on Arri cameras – a great amount of detail and sharpness in well-lit scenes, but some flatness and less detail in segments shot either indoors or at night. Fortunately, those dimmer scenes don't suffer too many problems with black crush. The transfer here does a pretty good job detailing facial features, and there are no major issues involving banding or aliasing of the image.
'Turn' looks best during the daytime, particularly when the English's red or Americans' blue uniforms are on display. Sometimes, though, the sharpness of those daylight scenes make special effects shots (usually backgrounds that have been added) look less than seamless, but that's more an issue with the F/X creators than this transfer. Those who own other TV shows shot on the Arri Alexa should know what to expect here, and all in all the series looks pretty good on Blu-ray.
There's only one audio option for the episodes, and it's a English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track that is pretty impressive to listen to, when the series needs it to be. While a large chunk of 'Turn' involves clandestine conversations between characters in quiet locations (hey, this is a spy series after all), there is the occasional need for gunfire, action, and even a battle or two. In these instances, the soundtrack really comes to life, providing an immersive feel, some fun directionality, and some solid low-end LFE use. Even when less exciting things are happening on screen, rears will be used for a number of ambient sounds, such as a horse galloping by off-screen. Balance is quite good here as well, as gunfire, explosions, and the like never drown out the spoken word.
I also didn't note any obvious glitches in the audio, such as dropouts or problems with dynamic range. This isn't quite a reference-quality track, but it’s a really good one with no real complaints.
Subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
I'm giving 'Turn' a rental recommendation, but not because the series isn't watchable – more because of the lack of bonus materials on this Season 1 release, as well as the fact that, while the episodes are engaging, the 'rewatchable' factor here isn't very high. In other words, most will enjoy watching 'Turn', but it's not likely something you'll go back to for repeat viewings.