Hitting the Historical Sweet Spot, or Why “Turn” is Superior to “Game of Thrones”

I tried Game of Thrones and just couldn’t get into it, but have to admit I’m hooked on Turn, which airs on AMC opposite the fantasy hit, in the Sunday night slot before Mad Men. Next Sunday June 8th is its first season finale, and I’m crossing my fingers that AMC doesn’t pull the plug.

I guess it’s a simple matter of not enjoying the fantasy genre. There’s so much real mythology, and real history, to get to know, it seems like a waste of energy to become literate in a fake one. Like learning Klingon when you know your Spanish sucks. The genre’s defenders say that because it’s undiluted by any messy complications, it can have perfectly crafted plots. The plot lines in real history books are often clumsy, and full of unsatisfying split decisions. Why not Tolkienize them, so that the heroes are pure, and everyone takes the world of the story at face value? So author and viewer alike can forget about the priggish Elizabethan music buff or Civil War enthusiast who’s looking for an excuse to call “Bullshit”?

I have no answer to that, except “G’ahead!” I’m not saying the genre should be banned, I’m just saying it bores the hell out of me. I hunger to connect with other times and social landscapes, and can’t foresee any fantasy world thrilling enough to offset the lost opportunity. Even if the writers take liberties with historical details, then what attention they do pay to getting the period right still gives us a chance to think like a person from that place and time.

The sweet spot, it seems to me, is giving the viewer just enough familiar things to relate to, while having the integrity to challenge them to get their heads around a somewhat authentic version of the period. The American Revolution is famously lousy for TV ratings and box office, and the rare attempts at taking on the material usually center on families: Mel Gibson’s Patriot movie (2000) was a father-son revenge story, and HBO’s John Adams miniseries (2008) kept the John-Abigail relationship front and center. The Patriot was a Red State chest-thumper that romanticized aggression after eight years of Clinton’s cautious use of the military – I saw it in a gorgeous old theater in Clarksville, Tennessee while on a road trip, and people seemed to love it – while John Adams was the Blue State call for a return to technocracy and an assertive national government at the end of the Bush years.

Turn beats Gibson’s propaganda by a mile, but I also – and this is heresy among history nerds – prefer it to John Adams. It too centers on a family, but a much more interesting one: the young Revolutionary double-agent has a father who supports the British, a wife who leans that way, an ex-flame/accomplice married to a Revolution supporter in prison, and a handful of roughnecks trying to pass what secrets they come across back to General Washington.

June 1, 2014, The Prison Ship Martyrs monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn...

June 1, 2014, The Prison Ship Martyrs monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn…

I’m not saying I never blow raspberries at the TV when the plot devices come across as false or unduly sensational. In fact, it happens a few times an episode. The double-agent, who grew up on Long Island in the 1760s, speaks, as you’d expect, like an Englishman, but his father’s accent inexplicably sounds like he’s on Ohio Public Radio. I especially dislike the way characters handle pistols and muskets, which shot inaccurate knuckleballs, as if they’re in a shootout at the OK Corral with weapons from 100 years later. In one episode, a night ambush by a few soldiers at a farmhouse turns into a standoff that lasts till morning, while the civilian farmer lies bleeding a few meters from his front door and his family must listen to him moan. That’s like a World War II story, a level of brutality that wouldn’t have occurred to 18th Century fighters.

But for each device like that – red meat for the viewers creator/writer Craig Silverstein no doubt feels like he has to feed – there are good historical details, and you never lose the sense that revolution, civil war, and military occupation are messy, and it’s set right here in the U.S. of A., and that’s kind of the point. It’s a series for a country that’s tired of Afghanistan, and wary of sending national guardsmen to Syria.

In 1776 Long Islanders weren’t really Americans, just a bunch of politically divided opportunists with chips on their shoulders about taxes and a slowly emerging consensus of beliefs about legislative authority. Silverstein was careful to give each major character a personal motive, and not just an idealistic one, to join the Revolution. They didn’t have a mythology to believe yet, they were living the mythology.

The affection between the double agent and his female accomplice is a nice touch – that he was in love with one woman but married his brother’s fiancée when he died young – is a very real and very 18th Century problem.  I also find the attention to the prison ships that were anchored in what’s now the Brooklyn Navy Yard especially welcome. The threat of ten years on The Jersey is like a death sentence. I also appreciate that the African-American characters, who get displaced by the Revolution, into a semi-slave, semi-free status in the lower rungs of the workforce, aren’t just there to be scenery, but play consequential roles.

...and the door to the vaults where the bones are kept.

…and the door to the vaults where the bones are kept.

Based on a book, the series walks the line between a familiar trope – a spy ring – and the unfamiliar 18th Century colonial society. It goes to show that there’s a wealth of historical content out there on the peripheries of momentous events. If the series had gotten closer to the icons, and been called Valley Forge, or Hamilton, then the core audience of, well, people like me, would have expected more history and less license. I didn’t know who John Woodhull was before Turn came on, so I’m ready to roll with it. Let’s hope the numbers add up, or at least AMC figures that enough of us aren’t going to watch Game of Thrones anyway, to keep it around another season. I want to know what happens next.

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