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5 Shows like Turn: Historical Deception

James Thomas itcherWhen The History Channel became more about aliens than Napoleon people became hungry for actual historical narratives. According to history, the American Founding Fathers were some of the raunchiest, craziest rebels this side of Guy Fawkes. TV shows like ‘Turn’ add some spice to the dramatic historical accounts that have been rendered bland by high school textbooks. To see history personalized and made into compelling stories check out shows like ‘John Adams’, ‘Sons of Liberty’, and ‘The Book of Negroes’. ~ James Thomas

The American Underground

Americans often talk about the role of the Minutemen and the bravery of the Colonial generals when they speak of American victory during the Revolutionary War. These narratives are easy stories to tell, but the shadow war that was waged by spies was what often got things done. The show ‘Turn’ is one of the few narratives that have bothered to examine how espionage and stab happy spies helped to undermine the British forces.

This is the story of America’s first double agent, an American colonist who appreciated the fashion of the Redcoats but definitely not their tendencies toward taxation and colonist lynching.

The show muddied the pristine waters of respectability surrounding the war and pulled away the veil of nationalism that makes it difficult for fans of the red white and blue to see this conflict as anything but black and white.


Shows Similar to ‘Turn’…

‘Sons of Liberty’ (History, 2015)

I have to say that even though ‘Sons of Liberty’ strives to give audiences some real historical context the awesome cinematography makes it feel more like the movie Young Guns melded with a costume drama. The show tells the story of America’s Founding Fathers when they were young, crazy, and pretty. Most of them were broke, bitter, and proficient smugglers who knew more about brewing beer and avoiding tariffs than drafting legislation.

You could easily call ‘Sons of Liberty’ a pop version of history.  The show depicts the likes of Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Hancock. Not to call the founding fathers unattractive, but these versions of them look like they had access to running water, soap, and plenty of skin cream.

Still, the show does create a sense of honest drama and enough actual facts that a fan of living history will enjoy watching the Sons go to work.

Similarity Match: 90%
Both ‘Sons of Liberty’ and ‘Turn’ deal with the particulars of stabbing redcoats in the back. However, this show is a casting call of the most important people in American history rather than a show focused on a nameless spy.

‘John Adams’ (HBO, 2008)

The biggest disservice that history tends to do to important men is to forget who did the actual heavy lifting. Yes, folks like Ben Franklin and John Hancock were popular but not the only important men of their time. As in many series similar to ‘Turn’, ‘John Adams’ tells the full story of a man who contributed just as much to the creation of America as men like Franklin and received much less credit.

One of the most compelling things about this show is how it dealt with the Boston Massacre. It took the inciting event of the Revolutionary War and used it in a way that was somehow genuine and theatrical giving the actor Paul Giamatti a lot to work with and the audience a character they could instantly root for against the British.

I was kind of surprised to not hear a slightly British accent from John Adams in the series; however, I think it works in the context of the show.

Similarity Match: 85%
Similar to the characters in ‘Turn’, this version of ‘John Adams’ is filled with flaws and personal desires that make him relatable. However, this show seems to have been fact-checked a bit more thoroughly.

‘The Book of Negroes’ (CBC/BET, 2015)

Anyone who knows about American history knows that a lot of it is bleak. The series ‘The Book of Negroes’ captures the most dismal parts of the American slave trade with stark clarity. Similar to many TV shows like ‘Turn’ it does not there away from the worst parts of America’s heritage.

You won’t find any idealized or white washed leaders of the country here just a simple woman stolen from her homeland trying to survive. The show was very revealing and heart-rending at times though the main character is tougher than nails. After being kidnaped, she came to the New World was resilient, escaped and found her freedom.

The show was filled with the honesty and authenticity of the setting and the visceral sense of brutality. Even though it was hard to watch at times it did a good job giving the American narrative context.

Similarity Match: 80%
Unlike ‘Turn’ and many of the other shows on this list ‘Book of Negroes’ offers the perspective of the African slaves who helped build the country. Still, both shows offer a stark and unvarnished view of history.


If You Like ‘Turn’, You Will Like…

‘Turn’ melds the scope of a historical drama with a taught spy thriller. The following shows deal with those aspects of history but instead focus on examples of the process of American spymasters in a more modern time and historical fiction that aims for greater accuracy.

‘The Assets’ (ABC, 2014)

Real spies look nothing like James Bond or Jason Bourne. In the show ‘The Assets’ the inner workings of the CIA are brought to light as a man named Aldrich Ames sells some of the most important secrets of the country to Soviet agents. Aldrich is a man who has been effective and loyal for decades but when a Russian dump truck full of money pulls up to his house his loyalty becomes much more expensive.

Similar to many TV series like ‘Turn’, ‘The Assets’ looks at the nature of spine and the reasons that people decide to deceive the governments for which they work.  An integral part of the show is the fact that for the most part just staying alive for poor Aldrich comes down to dumb luck. So many times he is a hare’s breath away from being discovered and given a 45 caliber severance package.

This show is perfect for any fan of spy fiction or anyone interested in Cold War history.

Unlike ‘Turn’, ‘The Assets’ is set closer to present day and based around a character who is working against America. However, both shows deal with espionage and the price we pay for our patriotism.

‘George Washington’ (CBS, 1984)

Even the most accurate retellings of history are tainted by the need to see things in as positive a light as possible. This is the case with the TV series ‘George Washington’ in which Barry Bostwick plays the first president in a bombastic and somehow stoic depiction of the First American President. Of course, there are no scenes of cherry trees being chopped down only Washington patriotically plowing through Redcoats like Genghis Khan.

I like that this series tried to be historically relevant and accurate even going so far as shooting in Washington DC itself for inspiration. However, this is overwritten by a narrative that makes Washington seem like Hercules with a musket at times. There are few spies in this story mostly because if General Washington wanted information in this show he would just stare down a British officer and demand it from him.

The circumstances are spot on from a historical standpoint even though the narrative and language are played pretty dramatically.

Both ‘Turn’ and ‘George Washington’ deal with the same significant moments in history and offer them narrative context. However, in ‘George Washington’, the focus is on one important individual and this is signified by the fact that everything but the future first President seems to be covered in dirt.


Old Spies Never Die

The act of spying taints the perpetrators in the eyes of the military and the public at large. Like assassins, even if the actions of a spy are beneficial to the nation they can never truly or openly celebrate their success. Do you think you could be a spy?

Let me know in the comments down below.

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