Monday, April 27, 2015


Not everyone in the American colonies wanted to boot out King George and trade him for General George. These loyalists were often eager and pleased to help British troops and officials who had come to put down the rebellion and to inform on suspected rebels and insurrectionists. At first glance, Abraham Woodhull would be exactly such a person -- the son of a magistrate and someone who took a public loyalty oath to the King.

But appearances can be deceiving, as Woodhull is actually a lead spy in the Culper Ring, an intelligence-gathering group that kept George Washington informed of British troop movements and plans, helped expose Benedict Arnold and played a vital role in the colonists' victory in the Revolutionary War. Two recent books, the pop-history George Washington's Secret Six by TV personality Brian Kilmeade and sportswriter Don Yaeger and the more scholarly Washington's Spies by historian Alexander Rose, hit the shelves last year and helped spark interest in a television series, AMC's Turn.

The Culper Ring operated between Long Island and Manhattan and involved several men and probably at least one woman. Its complete history is sketchy today, given that spy rings often don't keep diaries and a lot of what written records there may have been have disappeared or been lost since the 1770s. So historical drama focusing on it can have even more latitude than historical drama often takes, and show creator Craig Silverstein takes his latitude and runs with it.

But not to Turn's benefit, as his changes create a soapy storyline that involves former lovers, suspected infidelities, and as many other non-spy-related contrivances as writers can imagine. Changes like that aren't crimes by themselves, even though the actual story of the Culper ring has more than enough meat for a good drama. But they're not well done, and the cast sells no great inspiration in acting them out. Snooty British officer villains who prey upon virtuous American women, uncouth and brutal Scotsmen who learn the truth before everyone else by means of their direct but un-genteel methods and manners, loyalists who sneer down their noses at rebel scum, etc. -- almost every single character fits into a stock type without really displaying much conviction for any of it.

I gave up on Turn about halfway through the first season, and so did many others. Ratings for episodes 6 and 7 were half those of the premiere and the finale could muster less than three-quarters of the pilot's numbers. Reviews indicate the second season has been better done, and its inclusion of some of the larger players in the drama such as Washington himself have dragged the focus away from the manufactured love stories and back towards the spy ring Turn is supposed to be about. Rose, author of Washington's Spies, wrote the episode that airs tonight. It may be worth a second look, somewhere down the line, but the ratings have been dismal and so we might not see a full Turn.
Called MI-5 when it aired in the United States, spooks began the year after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. It spanned the London terrorist bombings in 2005. Matthew Mcfadyen plays Tom Quinn, the lead of a group of agents who work for Her Majesty's Intelligence Division 5, referred to as MI-5. It's roughly analogous to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States in that both focus on domestic intelligence matters, although MI-5 doesn't have as much to do with criminal investigations as does the FBI. spooks aired for 10 seasons ("series," in British TV lingo) on BBC1, maintaining popularity despite numerous cast changes. A movie is planned for a 2015 release.

Quite a few reviews compared it with Kiefer Sutherland's 24, airing at about the same time and covering the same kind of storylines. The episodes I watched seemed more like Law and Order: SVU in that they gave a lot of narrative space to the characters' non-work lives and featured the same kind of smothering self-righteousness from the leads. The initial episode found Quinn and his fellow agents trying to uncover who's smuggled 20 bombs into the country and what they will be used for, before they can be used. Apparently out of potential plotters for terrorist bombings in the United Kingdom, the show decided to pin the blame on a radical anti-abortion activist from the U.S. who sneaked into the country to mount a terror campaign against UK doctors who perform abortions. Naturally the activist, played by American actress Lisa Eichhorn with a Southern accent that couldn't be worse, is religious but a complete hypocrite about the tenets of her faith. We're also supposed to believe that she's pregnant by a clandestine affair (Eichhorn was 50 at the time) and that the state of Florida still uses the electric chair for execution (it quit in 1999, although the condemned may choose it if they wish).

The second episode featured a right-wing politician who wanted to start a race war and who interrogated captured agents by shoving one's hand and then head into a deep fryer before shooting her in the head. Showrunners said the move was meant to demonstrate the kind of ruthlessness MI-5 agents might face and demonstrate that the show would not be a cookie-cutter drama; important characters could die. Of course, they chose to illustrate this point by torturing and killing a young woman to motivate the male agents in a classic fridging trope, so the whole "non-cookie-cutter" thing rings very hollow.

Although slickly produced and featuring an engaging cast, spooks carries the same burden SVU does: When the leads are so smarmily smug a viewer sympathizes with the villains, it's time to quit watching. And so I did, midway through series 1.

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