New on TV Sunday: ‘Turn’ bores, ‘Silicon Valley’ scores
Reviews of AMC’s “Turn,” set during the Revolutionary War, and HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” set in the world of Google, Twitter and the like.
Credit AMC for taking another big swing with Revolutionary War spy drama “Turn” (9 p.m. Sunday) but it’s too bad the pilot falls short. Dull and sometimes confusing — why are those British soldiers loyal to the Red Coats not wearing red? — the 90-minute premiere too often encourages viewers to turn away in boredom or frustration.
Written by showrunner Craig Silverstein (“Nikita,” “Terra Nova”) and directed by Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), “Turn” is based on the book “Washington’s Spies” by Alexander Rose. As a spy show, “Turn” is less intriguing, albeit somewhat faster-paced, than AMC’s one-season-and-done spy show “Rubicon.”
“Turn” viewers will eventually be introduced to the fully formed Culper Ring, a group of childhood friends who become Washington’s spies, helping to turn the tide in the Revolutionary War. But Sunday’s premiere is all setup and begins to gain cohesiveness only near its end.
Set in autumn 1776, “Turn” focuses on Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell, “Billy Elliot”), a Long Island farmer who gets drawn into the Revolutionary War after coming to the defense of the husband of his ex-fiancee, Anna Strong (Heather Lind), in what turns into a tavern brawl.
Abe is married to Mary (Meegan Warner), but he clearly still carries a torch for Anna — press notes say their union was wrecked by their fathers: Abe’s dad is a Tory and Anna’s dad is a liberal Whig, but that’s only alluded to in the pilot — and with her husband sent to prison for the fight, “Turn” sets up the prospect of a reunion.
After the pub fight with British soldiers, a British captain who was involved turns up dead, and the Brits suspect Abe. Abe’s father, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin R. McNally), has the ear of British Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman, “Torchwood”). So he’s able to save Abe from hanging, but then Abe digs himself in deeper.
And this is where the pilot’s confusion escalates: Abe goes to trade with someone he’s not supposed to — it’s not entirely clear which side that is but presumably it’s the revolutionaries — and Abe eventually gets drawn into the spy ring by old friend Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich), one of Washington’s soldiers. “Turn” acknowledges that Abe has a past with Ben, but it’s not at all clear in the pilot that Abe and Ben were also childhood friends with Anna and Caleb (Daniel Henshall), a courier for Washington’s spies. (Episode two, a more straightforward hour, clarifies these relationships somewhat.)
Viewers with more knowledge of the Revolutionary War will fare better than others: While “Turn” tries to adhere to a color scheme for clarity (the Brits in Red Coats; the American Revolutionaries in blue), it gets upended by the Queen’s Rangers, a motley crew whose allegiance is made clearer in after-their-introduction dialogue.
What’s perhaps most disappointing about “Turn” is that it fails to offer nuanced characters, something viewers have come to expect from AMC series. In “Turn,” all the Brits are mustache-twirling villains; there are no British characters painted in shades of gray.
HBO comedy “Silicon Valley” (10 p.m. Sunday) is the superior, prestige network newcomer this weekend. It’s similar in tone and setting to Amazon.com’s “Betas,” but “Silicon Valley” is funnier and more polished.
Set in the world of Google, Twitter and the like, this comedy punctures the self-important bubbles of nerds who have risen to power in the high-tech gold rush. It’s a well-observed comedy that succeeds because it’s so rooted in specificity.
Multiple tech entrepreneurs in the show claim they want to “make the world a better place,” but “Silicon Valley” shows that’s just lip service: It’s really all about the techies, their desire to build an empire and rise to the top of the heap while appearing not to be the bullies they despised in their youth.
Not every character is quite this calculating, but enough of them are that it’s a noticeable attribute. Nice, meek Richard (Thomas Middleditch) emerges as the show’s heroic center. He hasn’t had the success yet that might propel him into the ranks of the jerkier tech overlords, and that makes him the audience’s in.
Richard creates an algorithm for compression software that impresses his bullying co-workers — programmers he calls “brogrammers” — and results in a bidding war between his insincere Hooli boss Gavin Belson (Matt Ross, “Big Love”) and awkward venture capitalist Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch), who seems to have more in common with Richard.
Richard lives in Hacker Hostel, a startup incubator house run by smug Erlich (T.J. Miller, “She’s Out of My League”), who lets Richard and others live in the house rent-free in exchange for a 10 percent share in whatever they create. This setup allows for the introduction of an assortment of colorful characters, including pompous Gilfoyle (Martin Starr, “Freaks and Geeks”), clever Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani, “Portlandia”) and Richard’s best friend, Big Head (Josh Brener). Hooli refugee Jared (Zach Woods, “The Office”) joins them in episode two.
Created by “King of the Hill” veterans Mike Judge, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, the comedy of “Silicon Valley” is rooted in its characters and their foibles. But one big question that hangs over the series: What becomes of the Peter Gregory character? Actor Welch died in December from lung cancer, and an HBO spokeswoman says Welch completed production of five episodes before his death; the remaining three episodes in season one were rewritten to explain the absence of his important character.