Thursday, June 12, 2014

Are You Watching "Turn"?

I am not.  

But everywhere I go people are asking me about this new television series about the American Revolution based on Alexander Rose's book Washington's Spies.   I am sure I will get around to watching it one of these days.  As much as I preach the idea that historians must engage the public, I seldom watch historical movies until well after they have the left the theaters.  I guess I need to improve in this area, but as someone who thinks about history all day for a living I have always seen television and movie watching--sports, comedy, dramas--as a chance to think about something else for a change.

I am, however, glad that J.L. Bell is watching Turn and is reviewing it at Boston 1775.  Here is a taste of his Season One wrap-up:

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 Americamovies. 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. 

For Bell's other posts and reviews on Turn click here.