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Turn: Washington's Spies - The Complete First Season

Starz / Anchor Bay // Unrated // March 17, 2015
List Price: $59.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted March 11, 2015 | E-mail the Author
Based on Alexander Rose's book Washington's Spies, "Turn: Washington's Spies" is a new dramatic thriller series, set during the American Revolutionary War. Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) is a farmer suffering through hard times. His latest crop is infested with maggots, preventing him from repaying his debt to Selah Strong (Robert Beitzel), who runs a bar with Abraham's former girlfriend Anna (Heather Lind), now Selah's wife. While Abraham is visiting them, a fight breaks out involving a British soldier, and although Abraham's intervention prevents any serious injuries, both he and Selah are arrested. Abraham's father (Kevin R. McNally), a judge, saves him from jail time, and Abraham uses his freedom to slip into North American territory to try to sell his goods. The gambit changes everything: while "behind enemy lines", his old friend Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) asks him to spy on the British for the North Americans. Meanwhile, the soldier from the barfight turns up dead, and Abraham's absence makes him the number one suspect, especially in the eyes of Lt. John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), who is making unwanted advances toward Anna while Selah is in prison. With no other options, Abraham concocts a story for the British and feeds information to the Americans to get rid of Simcoe, enlisting Anna's help and damaging his relationship with his father, who can tell that Abraham is hiding something.

For whatever reason, I rarely find myself watching historical or period-set TV shows, but "Turn" is a reasonably thrilling first taste of the genre, mining the true story of the Culper Ring as a basis for spy-style thrills. While the character drama on hand often feels unremarkable, the show is blessed with an impressive ensemble cast that give the show just enough personality for it to skate by on its effective suspense and action scenes. It's no surprise that the show feels like a bit of a footnote among AMC's impressive lineup, but the show's renewal for a second season also doesn't seem entirely unwarranted.

Although his bread and butter has generally been in supporting roles as opposed to playing leads, Jamie Bell has always seemed like a huge asset to any movie or TV show he's been in. Despite never having quite broken through to the A-list, he's one of the strongest B-list performers out there, blessed with an intensity and presence worthy of a star, with a dramatic range worthy of a character actor. As Abraham, he slides naturally into the role of an everyman, an average farmer essentially trying to mind his own business, while also feeling right at home in the show's intense suspense sequences. With little more than a well-timed dart of the eye, he has the ability to elevate tension in a scene, and his performance even brings a few brief glimpses of humor to the series (whether that's intentional or just a side effect of his natural charisma). The entire cast is strong across the board, but Bell is uniquely suited to be the glue that holds the program together.

Among those other cast, there are several stand-outs. As a character, Anna could use a bit more personality (more on that below), but Lind has excellent chemistry with Bell, visibly lighting up when his character is around. As the show goes on, she gets a bit more dramatic meat to chew on, and easily rises to the challenge, matching Bell in some of the series' most intense scenes. McNally, whom many will recognize from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, hits just the right notes as Abraham's father, conveying a subtle but devastating air of disappointment through his suspicion of what it is that Abraham is up to. Daniel Henshall exudes a fascinating combination of silliness and dangerousness as Caleb Brewster, one of the two men who lure Abraham into becoming a spy for the US. Finally, Roukin seems perfectly suited to be the sniveling, smug villain. Not to inadvertently insult the guy, but there's just something about his round eyes and long face that are just right for the role.

Where the series suffers is in the scripting of the show. Directorially, the show gains a bit of juice from the gritty nature of the battles, which have absolutely no hesitation in showing the brutality and cruelty of war -- the sound of a bayonet squishing into flesh will be burned into the viewer's brain after ten episodes -- and the performances, again, are frequently entertaining. Yet, viewed outside of those elements, the material never quite leaps off the page with the droll bite that the show seems to be going for. The scripts lack personality, with the execution doing the heavy lifting. Perhaps fans of the show consider that a plus, given the ratio of shows that try for witty and stylish dialogue compared to the number of shows that succeed, and it's obvious that a great deal of effort went into presenting key historical details drawn from real life, but it feels as if a bit of wickedness, a faint increase in the series' melodrama, would make the show more entertaining to watch. "Turn" is solid TV, but slightly forgettable, the kind of program that's impressive while it's going, and fades the moment it ends.

The Blu-ray
"Turn" comes in a Blu-ray case with a flap tray, housing the three discs, a leaflet with a UltraViolet Digital Copy code, and another advertising "Mad Men." A piece of promotional art showing Jamie Bell's character hiding within a crowd of British soldiers, and the back cover has a nice photo of the entire principal cast. The case is one of the new Viva Elites housing two discs on the front and back covers and only one disc on the tray, and the entire thing slides inside a glossy, embossed slipcover.

The Video and Audio
There is nothing technically wrong with the set's 1.78:1 1080p AVC presentation of the show. In terms of detail, the image looks as crisp as one expects a current program to look. However, the cinematography of the show takes on a slightly muted color and features somewhat anemic shadows. The result is flat-looking image, lacking in the full cinematic richness the producers of the show are clearly interested in. Occasionally, motion blur is also noticeable, inherent to the original photography.

The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track included fares much better, with a bassy, lively mix that captures a ton of stylistic detail. The music and effects are frequently effective in drawing the viewer into the action and suspense sequences, putting a nice polish on the show's production values. A choice of English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also provided.

The Extras
Three extras are included, all of which are in HD, and all of which are housed on the third disc. First, we have "The History of 'Turn: Washington's Spies'" (4:47), which features Alexander Rose explaining the making of the book that inspired the series. "From Art to Image" (4:31) chats briefly about the massive undertaking in terms of production design and costume design, and the research that went into recreating the period. The set wraps up with a lengthy reel of deleted scenes (24:39) from the entire series, presented either as a "play all" reel or broken up by the episode numbers.

Promos for "Mad Men" and "Halt and Catch Fire" play before the main menu on Disc 1. Note also that the discs feature a continuous "Play All" function that will detect when a new disc is put into the player.

"Turn" has already been granted a second series on AMC, one which begins airing next month. The show is engaging and features a great cast, but I hope the next season also finds a way to invest it with a little more flair in addition to the high drama of old-fashioned espionage. Recommended.

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