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The Take on “Turn”

A bookish take on a new television series that’s based on . . . a book.

The reviews are in on AMC’s new Revolutionary War spy drama, Turn, and they’re mixed. Hollywood Reporter waggles a so-so hand, saying “Thrill or be killed”; Entertainment Weekly thinks AMC has committed “storytelling revolution”; Variety says it “lacks the vigor of a first-rate spy thriller,” yet the New York Times calls it “clear and exciting.”

My favorite review came from much closer to home: In the Washington Post, Hank Stuever notes, “Outfoxing the Redcoats is one thing, but launching a drama takes time.” Twenty-first-century television viewers accustomed to whomp! bang! boom! thriller action may start yawning when they realize 18th-century spies used petticoats hung on washing lines to alert one another, and heavily costumed British officers at first remind us more of jolly tin soldiers than mortal enemies. 

All of which made me think about how Turn might be like reading a certain kind of book. Many books begin with a bang—but can also then end with a whimper. Other books and stories involve a great deal of careful scene setting so that once the action starts, it doesn’t have to be interrupted for background. Turn, of course, is based on a book: Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose, which gives the full story of the Culper Ring, as this group of spies came to be known.

I plan to interview Rose soon and get his take on Turn, but first, I want to ask you: Have you watched the first episode? Will you keep watching? Have you read the book? If not, did the show’s premiere get you interested in doing so?

After all, I know there are plenty of you, close to home, who know a great deal about intelligence gathering and spies. . . .

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