**1/2 (out of ****)
Hearing the pitch for Turn a year or so ago was both exciting and scary. Exciting, because it’s pretty dope, as it tells the story of America’s first spy ring, a group of people who infiltrated the British army for one George Washington. It was scary, for a couple of reasons. One, is the Rome rule, which states that sometimes shows, no matter how good they are, need to just go away because its network can’t afford the budget that period pieces demand. Two, because it’s from AMC, a channel I just can’t sell my stock in, no matter how many Low Winter Suns they give us make it seem like Mad Men and Breaking Bad were just examples of a new channel getting luckier than any other channel in history, as opposed to the standards we could expect from the future. Walking Dead’s popularity aside, it’s not a good show, not to mention the fairly forgettable Hell on Wheels (is that even still on?), Rubicon, and The Killing. Regardless of your feelings on any of those shows, you’d be hard pressed to put them in the same category as Mad Men and Breaking Bad. So Turn, in a way, has more pressure on it than any other show that’s premiered in 2014 so far: it doesn’t just have to take the place of Breaking Bad (Breaking Bad!!!!), but also prove that AMC is capable of producing something that can do that. Turn doesn’t destroy our faith in AMC, but it does swiftly move all of that pressure to whatever AMC’s next show will be. Oddly enough, AMC had the rights to air Rectify, one of the few shows of any network over the last five years or so that can stand-up to MM or BB, but they decided to give it to The Sundance Channel, a channel they own, to help them kick start their run of original programming. It backfired a teense, as AMC can’t find a hit, and The Sundance Channel just had a year (along with The Returned and Top of the Lake) with a batting average we haven’t seen since…well, since AMC premiered Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Whoops.
Most shows, particularly network shows, have an easy time of setting up what they do. Comedies show off how different and similar their casts are to each other, and then throw them into mildly wacky premises until the characters run out of steam. Dramas show off their setting (typically a workplace, typically a hospital or crime fighting unit of some sort), and then choose a tone (think House as opposed to Grey’s Anatomy). Off-network shows, especially one with a premise so juicy, don’t necessarily have it so easy, or have it a lot easier, depending on how you look at it. With fewer episodes needed from each season, and often times, fewer seasons needed, off-network shows can tell their stories and bounce, assuming they can stay on the air that long. That means that the pilot for Turn doesn’t have to do all of the horrible, hacky things that network shows have to do. They can just begin their story. Network pilots often have too much to do, which can make them feel loud and annoying. But Turn, with less to do, just feels boring – boring in a way that makes me think that pilots are damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and maybe I’ll just never see a good pilot again.
The biggest problem is that we get a main character (played by Jamie Bell) that almost needs to be boring. Otherwise, he probably wouldn’t have landed in all of the situations that lead the story to begin. He’s pulled back and forth by Blues and Reds, and keeps a low-profile so neither side gets pissed off. This (slowly) kick starts the story, but it also shows us that we’re going to be following a guy whose actions are dictated by the situations he’s in, as opposed to his actions dictating the situation, which is inherently more interesting. War is some crazy ass shit, and it steals the character away from any one man, forcing him to work as a small part of a human machine, but still. We’ve gotten rich characters from war stories before. And without the budget or the time to stage something like Saving Private Ryan’s beach invasion (a segment that is necessary to that movie, thanks to its severe lack of character depth), those strong character moments are imperative for Turn. The first show is by no means bad, but it offers no way of grasping onto this character. This makes it almost impossible to grasp on to this story, or feel the need to tune in later to see how these relationships develop.
There’s a chance that Turn is doing a particularly slow burn, and it demands that you judge it by its first season, not its first episode. That’s totally understandable, but here’s the thing: I would also recommend you judge Rectify by its first season, and not its pilot, but its pilot is good enough to force you to watch the rest of the series. See how that works? As I said earlier, these off-network pilots have a far shorter checklist than their network counterparts, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing on their checklist. Better luck next time, AMC, and if this isn’t the next Breaking Bad, at least it’s not the next Low Winter Sun.
- Ryan Haley