AMC is banking big on Turn, its new spy series set during the Revolutionary War. With Breaking Bad over and Mad Men entering its final season, not to mention last year's non-starter Low Winter Sun, the network is in desperate need of a drama besides The Walking Dead on which to hang its storytelling hat.
Rooted in actual events and based on Alexander Rose's book Washington's Spies, Turn tells the story of the Culper Ring, America's first spy ring whose members delivered intelligence to George Washington about British activity in New York. Unlike AMC's flagship anti-heroes Walter White and Don Draper, the show's central character is the real-life Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell), a hero in the truest sense — albeit an unlikely one — whom viewers can root for without conflict or shame. But will they?
"I think people are genuinely interested in their own history and I think people are interested in really strong, character-driven pieces of television. This is certainly that," Bell tells TVGuide.com. "We're peeling back a layer of the Revolutionary War that I don't think has been captured before, or at least hasn't been focused on. ... I think we're humanizing a lot of this period in history that has been in some way forgotten about, or is now just maybe thought of in the wrong light. This is really shedding light on a story that almost nobody knows about, and it's so crucial to the identity of America today."
For Bell, who burst onto the scene as the title character in Billy Elliot at age 14, the show also presents the potential for a breakout role as an adult. The British actor anchors the series as Abraham, a farmer, husband and father who's recruited to join the Culper Ring.
"When we first meet him, he's a repressed individual. He wants nothing to do with this war," Bell, 28, says of his character. "He's an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. And I think the journey of the character throughout the season is one where he restores his political beliefs. He finds his voice. ... He discovers his real love. And he also helps bring about the turning of the tide in the most important conflict in American history."
Turn opens in late 1776, with the British having driven Washington's army out of New York. It may behoove viewers to brush up on their colonial history before watching, as the muddled 90-minute pilot may overestimate the audience's ability to discern which characters are fighting on which side. (The confusing nature of the first episode might reflect the murkiness of the alliances depicted in the show, but that's almost definitely too generous of an explanation.)
While Turn's political specifics may sail over viewers' heads on an initial viewing, historically accurate phrases and customs are subtly woven in throughout, and the costumes alone are like porn for history nerds. And the pilot does succeed in setting up the show's other central conflict (aside from, you know, the War of Independence happening in the background). Through his work with the Culper Ring, Abe is reunited with Anna Strong (Heather Lind), his childhood friend and one true love. (Viewers will have to wait until Episode 3 to get the backstory behind their failed romance.)
"It's that relationship that you know it's so right. It's almost like the world is shoving you towards each other so magnetically," Bell says of the former lovers, who were once engaged. "Something catastrophic happened beyond [Abe's] control that changed everything, and in a way shut him down and required him to take responsibilities that he would rather have not taken. ... The last thing he wants to be is to be alone with Anna Strong, because it's just too difficult. There's too much pain and too much grief and too much history. But this spy ring is forcing them to be in those positions and be with each other and confront their history."
Bell, who has an 8-month old son with his wife, actress Evan Rachel Wood, says fatherhood has allowed him to have an extra level of empathy with Abraham. "I think about my son a lot [when filming]," he says. "If all of this goes wrong, [Abe] won't see his son grow up, his son will be taken away from him or he'll be separated from him. The risk is so high that his son is always in the forefront of his mind, with every decision he makes. And of course being a parent, even a new parent, it kind of happens literally overnight. It's just not about you anymore. You have to provide for, care for and protect the thing most valuable to you."
There's plenty of father-son dynamics to parse through in the series. Abe's father Richard (Kevin McNally) is a staunch Loyalist whose oldest son was killed in the war. It's debatable whether Abe joins the rebel cause out of personal conviction or a desire to prove something to his father.
"I think he does have strong patriot political beliefs. ... I just think it's been silenced and it's kind of been beaten out of him by many different people and for many different reasons," Bell says. "Abe wasn't the more favored son. It's kind of evident that [his brother] was the soldier, the one who was going to go places, the one who was — especially in the eyes of his father — just the better human being in all respects. Stronger, more courageous, smarter. I think [Abe] looked up to his brother, and I think the consequences surrounding his brother's death, whatever happened there ... just looms over him."
So, is Turn a history show with interesting characters thrown in for good measure, or a drama series that might impart a few history lessons along the way?
"I think you could take a lot of these themes and put them into any decade, any century, and I still think you'd have the same problems. ... [Turn] just happens to be set in the Revolutionary War," Bell says. "I think when there's an occupying force invading colonists or the locals, it stirs up a lot. Families are divided, and allegiances are made and broken. The very nature of conflict tears people apart. And I think you have an obligation, some kind of moral obligation, to make that point. ... I really feel like all those themes could [exist] now, could be in any period in history."
Turn premieres Sunday at 9/8c on AMC. Check out a sneak peek below. Will you watch?