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 start-up 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.
Syfy renewed "Helix" for a 12-episode second season to air in 2015.
Amazon.com renewed "Alpha House" for a second season.
Esquire Network renewed docuseries "Friday Night Tykes" for a second season.
BBC American has renewed its new drama "The Musketeers" for a second season in advance of the show's first-season premiere at 9 p.m. June 22.
Showtime picked up a seventh season of over-the-hill comedy "Nurse Jackie" in advance of the show's 9 p.m. April 13 sixth-season debut.
ABC canceled "Mind Games" last week and will replace it with "Celebrity Wife Swap" starting April 15. ABC also canceled "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland," which aired its final episode on Thursday.
Fox's "Rake," already downgraded to Fridays, moves this week to Saturday and will air its last two episodes from 8-10 p.m.
Vote for your favorite (and against your least favorite) prime-time shows in the Post-Gazette's annual online Keep or Cancel poll: http://old.post-gazette.com/tv/poll/default.asp.
Of local note
Sophie Guest, a third-grader at Avonworth Elementary, will appear in next week's episode of CBS's "Two and a Half Men" (9 p.m. Thursday, KDKA-TV) as Kid No. 4. The young actress recently played the daughter of the coroner on shot-in-Pittsburgh series "Those Who Kill" and appeared in "Jack Reacher" and the upcoming films "Draft Day" and "The Fault in Our Stars."
Pennsylvania's own version of C-SPAN, PCN, will air a Democratic gubernatorial debate from Harrisburg at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Animator John R. Dilworth, creator of Cartoon Network's "Courage the Cowardly Dog," will give a lecture at 5:30 p.m. Saturday in the University Center's George R. White Theatre, 414 Wood St., Downtown, at Point Park University. The lecture is free and open to the public and will include a question-and-answer session.
Duquesne University-produced kids science show "Scientasic!" -- aimed at children 8-13 -- returns for a new episode on the importance of sleep in cognitive function, airing at 7 p.m. Sunday on WQED-TV.
Next week WQED debuts "Chautauqua: Charting a Life in the Arts" (8 p.m. Thursday), produced by Pierina Morelli and narrated by Michael Bartley, which follows student violinist Ade Williams, singer Jean-Michel Richer and sibling dancers Colby and Christina Clark through auditions, practices and performances in summer 2013.
Local broadcasters chat
The Pittsburgh professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will host an open-to-the-public conversation with Pittsburgh broadcasting pioneers Joe DeNardo, Bob James, Adam Lynch and Eleanor Schano, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on April 26, at WESA, 67 Bedford Square on the South Side.
The cost, which includes brunch, is $20 for SPJ members, $25 for nonmembers and $15 for students. The reservation deadline is April 24; contact Ginny Frizzi for reservations at email@example.com or 412-624-5448.
Lifetime is wasting no time rushing a sequel to January's "Flowers in the Attic" to TV: Heather Graham, Ellen Burstyn and Dylan Bruce will reprise their roles in "Petals in the Wind," airing at 9 p.m. May 26. ... Sunday's season finale of cable's "The Walking Dead" set a new finale record, drawing 15.7 million viewers (10.2 million adults 18-49). ... The series finale of CBS's "How I Met Your Mother" drew a series-high 12.9 million viewers. ... PBS's "The Bletchley Circle" returns with new episodes at 10 p.m. April 13 on WQED-TV. ... IFC's "Comedy Bang! Bang!" returns for its third season at 10:30 p.m. May 8 following the second-season premiere of "Maron."
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Bones," HLN and various local news anchors who dared to take vacation time. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Those Who Kill," "How I Met Your Mother," "Game of Thrones" and "Amazing America with Sarah Palin." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about "How I Met Your Mother," "Friends With Better Lives," "The Walking Dead" and "Da Vinci's Demons."
Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.