RICHMOND, Va. — Seth Numrich can’t quite get a straight answer. In character as Ben Tallmadge, the leader of a group of Revolutionary War spies known as the Culper Ring and a central character in the new AMC drama “Turn,” he is interrogating a ragged-looking background player whose toes have been painted black to mimic frostbite.
The unfortunate man is a scout who has failed to relay crucial information to Tallmadge and fellow spy Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), who are working on behalf of Gen. George Washington, and his explanation for the botched mission is suspicious at best: He claims he fell in the river because he was blinded by fog.
“It’s very difficult to gather intelligence when we possess so little of it,” says a frustrated Tallmadge, exiting a makeshift hospital tent that, on camera, appears situated in a dense thicket of woods but is actually inside a giant converted warehouse. The space is so vast that crew members bike among the many sets, which include a two-story barn with a dirt floor and Colonial-style living quarters with working fireplaces. In a nice twist, the warehouse once housed an IRS facility.
“God knows what happened here, what was repossessed,” jokes Barry Josephson, “Turn’s” amiable executive producer, between takes on the set this winter day.
Premiering April 6, “Turn” focuses on a conflict in American history that continues to reverberate politically — perhaps you’ve heard of the tea party? — but has failed to captivate the popular imagination in the same way as the Civil War or World War II. It also arrives at a moment of transition for AMC. After the end of “Breaking Bad” and with “Mad Men” entering its final season next month, the question now is whether the network can maintain its reputation for top-notch, culture-shifting drama. “The Walking Dead” remains a huge hit if not an awards magnet, but more recent attempts to launch a buzzed-about series — most recently the low-rated cop drama “Low Winter Sun,” canceled after one season — have failed.
Although it’s not as somber or gory as the network’s best-known series, “Turn” shares the essential DNA of an AMC show. At its center is a conflicted everyman, Abe Woodhull, a not so happily married cabbage farmer and father of one in the Long Island village of Setauket in autumn 1776. Played by Jamie Bell, the British actor best known for dancing his heart out in “Billy Elliot,” Abe is initially reluctant to get involved in the Patriot cause, in part because his father, Richard (Kevin McNally), is a staunch Loyalist and influential local magistrate. Almost against his will, Abe gives in and joins his childhood friends Caleb and Ben and former flame Anna Strong (Heather Lind) in the Culper Ring.
“When we meet him it’s evident that he’s somewhat emotionally arrested, he’s shut down, he’s withdrawn and debased,” Bell says. “He’s had to give up so much of what he believes in. His patriot leanings he’s had to quiet because of his father, and the woman he loves he’s had to give up for the same reasons.”
“Turn,” adapted from “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring” by historian Alexander Rose, has the added distinction of being true — or at least true-ish. Josephson, a prolific producer with an eclectic list of credits that includes the long-running Fox procedural “Bones” and the fairy-tale musical film “Enchanted,” was dabbling with a feature about Nathan Hale, the Colonial spy executed by the British, when he stumbled across Rose’s book. (Tallmadge was Hale’s best friend from Yale.)
“I was fascinated,” Josephson recalls. “I produce movies and TV, and I thought, ‘This is why you do a series.’ You could do a fine movie and figure out some arc to follow, but that would really shortchange it.”
It is not difficult to understand the fascination. The real-life members of the Culper Ring, named after the aliases used by two of its key members, were citizens with ordinary occupations — homemakers and shopkeepers — who helped pioneer modern espionage, using encrypted messages and letters written in invisible ink at a time when steaming open other people’s mail represented the height of spy craft.
“What you didn’t really have at the beginning of the Revolution were agents based permanently behind enemy lines filtering intelligence back to headquarters,” Rose explains. “We tend to look at spying as if it’s always been there, but there were no manuals in those days, there was no training, no instruction, no apparatus. These guys were improvising, it was all ad hoc. It was like jazz espionage.”
Despite taking enormous personal risks and operating with little guidance, the Culpers were remarkably effective, relaying crucial information about British military maneuvers while remaining virtually undetected.
Josephson brought the book to Craig Silverstein, a standout writer on “Bones” and later an executive producer on “Terra Nova” and “Nikita.” Silverstein had never written a fact-based drama before and at first chose not to consult with Rose.
“I had to step outside of the history, even though I was extremely nervous about doing so. I thought Alex would say, ‘What? Abe didn’t have a Tory father!’” he says from Los Angeles, where the “Turn” writers’ room is based. But Rose, not the pedantic type, has embraced Silverstein’s interpretation and frequently provides input for the writing staff.
AMC announced a 10-episode order in July, and production began in November. The biggest hurdle has been an unusually severe winter on the East Coast.
This summer, the network will also launch another period piece of sorts, “Halt and Catch Fire,” set in the early days of the 1980s personal computing boom. The success of either show could help offset the perception that AMC, which has spin-offs of both “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” in the works, is “attempting to pull fresh meat off picked-over skeletons,” as Grantland writer Andy Greenwald has put it.
In an encouraging sign for the network, spies are more popular than ever on the small screen, considering “Homeland,” “The Americans” and the upcoming “24” revival. But “Turn” also joins a relatively short list of films and TV shows about the Revolutionary War, which has been curiously neglected by pop culture. Outside of “The Patriot,” Mel Gibson’s 2000 film, and “John Adams,” the 2008 HBO miniseries, there are few recent mainstream projects about the war for independence — unless you count the Fox series “Sleepy Hollow,” which reimagines Ichabod Crane as a time-traveling Continental soldier.
“That’s what we’re trying to do with ‘Turn’: Bring back the tricorn hat,” Rose jokes. “This is my grand aim.”
Asked why the Colonists get little love from Hollywood, Silverstein suggests it’s because “the propaganda version of the story is pretty quick to get. We learn it was a war of ideals and bravery and David versus Goliath, and that’s not exactly the way it went down. That is hard-wired not just in the way we’re taught but into who we are. It’s almost preserved in amber. It’s this thing we just don’t want to mess with, but we’re going to mess with it.”