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Take a 'Turn' with America's first spy ring

Published April 3, 2014 9:33 am

Television • AMC series is based on true story of spies who worked for George Washington.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"Turn" is a new TV series based on a very old true tale — the story of the Culper Ring, America's first set of spies.

They worked for Gen. George Washington, who "was basically getting his ass kicked," said AMC's head of original programming, Joel Stillerman.

"Turn" (Sunday, 7 and 8:30 p.m., AMC) revolves around Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell, "Billy Elliot"), a Long Island cabbage farmer who gets drawn into the ring. And drawn into the idea that the American colonies ought to be independent from the British Empire.

Bell is British. And he admits he didn't learn much about the American Revolution growing up.

"Yeah, they taught us that we lost," he said. "But it isn't really taught in schools. I don't think it's something that still to this day we look on particularly fondly."

"Turn" is loosely based on Alexander Rose's book "Washington's Spies." And Washington needed some spies, because the British were really good at espionage and the Americans were not.

The story picks up in 1778, and Abraham isn't looking to become a hero. His father, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin McNally), pretty much sympathizes with the Brits. He doesn't want to rock the boat.

Abe just wants to grow and sell cabbages so he can support his wife, Mary (Meegan Warner), and their infant son.

He is recruited by his old friend Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) to work for Continental Army officer Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich). Well, not so much recruited as coerced. And the drama begins.

It's sort of standard spy stuff, albeit conducted by people in 18th-century clothing.

The Brits aren't all bad guys in "Turn." Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman) seems like a good guy who's just following orders. On the other hand, Captain Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) is pretty much a monster, giving us someone to root against.

The biggest problem with "Turn" is the romance. Abe seems to love his wife, but he's still in love with an old girlfriend — Anna Strong (Heather Lind), a member of the spy ring. It just doesn't work. Which is unfortunate, because the spy story is very promising.

And sort of weird, because it feels anachronistic even though it isn't.

"In a way, it's the first spy story," said executive producer Craig Silverstein, "The birth of modern tradecraft was worked out here through trial and error. Aliases, cover stories, dead drops, the idea of a black budget, a lot of cryptography. These things were invented by the Culper Ring, but out of necessity, not because they came in as experts and knew what they were doing.

"So what surprised me when I read Alex's book was that it wasn't anachronistic, it was the start of it all."