WGN America’s first serious foray into “prestige television” is surprisingly successful, thanks to a great premise and considerable talent.
In this war, scientists are soldiers. There’s no secret brain trust in Washington, there’s no classified peace plan. No one is coming to save us.
Ever since upstart AMC broadsided the television landscape with Mad Men, every network from Cinemax to Syfy has tried to prove it could hang with the big boys. Some, like FX, have steadily built an entire slate of top-notch programming, while others have overreached and faltered. But it is the arrival of Manhattan on WGN America — a little-known, less-seen bastion of baseball, crummy reality, and Walker, Texas Ranger reruns — that is the most surprising of all.
There’s never been any shortage of World War II dramas, but they typically take place on the battlefield, building up the mythology of the “Greatest Generation.” Manhattan, instead, focuses on Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the group of dedicated, over-worked scientists who have uprooted their families to work on Robert Oppenheimer’s secret project. Even though the Nazis aren’t coming over the walls, these self-described geniuses are still in direct competition: whoever completes the atomic bomb first, wins the war. But creator Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex, another excellent historical drama) isn’t just content to focus on the blackboard scribblings and failed experimentation — Manhattan is a layered, nuanced look at an entire community, the secrets they must keep from each other, and the real moral implications of what they are attempting to do.
Leading the first of two teams, who are separately working on designs for “the gadget,” is Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey, The Big C), a haggard, stubborn man who is dealing with a handful of problems simultaneously. First, the “compartmentalized” military isn’t giving him the resources he needs, because it is the other team’s design, the team led by the smug Reed Akley (David Harbour), that is the front-runner. Winter believes his “implosion” idea could cut several weeks off the timetable, but the team that’s been assigned to him are idiosyncratic misfits, while Akley has his minions working in suit jackets in a much nicer building.
Second, Winter is plagued by nightmares about his device — meant to “end all war,” but at a terrible cost. No one on the project can tell anyone, not even their wives, just what they’re working on. In an early episode, Winter pours his heart out to his Spanish-speaking maid, but even that isn’t safe, as the government is quick to investigate — and discipline, with or without evidence — anyone suspected of leaking secrets. Richard Schiff recurs as the aptly-named Occam, who seems to live in a dark bunker with the sole purpose of interrogating anyone with alleged ties to the enemy. When one of Winter’s team, Sid Liao (Eddie Shin), is accused of selling his research, Liao’s troubles are compounded by his Asian heritage. (That he’s Chinese, not Japanese, appears not to matter.) Winter is then faced with an impossible choice, and not for the last time: his man, or the mission?
The entire cast, really, is a gallery of recognizable faces — Olivia Williams (Rushmore) plays Winter’s wife Liza, a scientist in her own right, thwarted by the military bureaucrats who don’t want her to learn what her husband is doing. As an arrogant prodigy assigned to Akley’s team, Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman, USA’s Rush) locks horns with Winter almost from the moment he arrives; his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan, House of Cards) struggles to fit in with the other bored, lascivious housewives living in the compound, ultimately taking a job as a phone operator, where she quickly learns to forget everything she hears. Playing the rest of Winter’s team are an endearing Michael Chernus (Captain Phillips), Katja Herbers (best known in the Netherlands), fighting an uphill battle as the only woman on the project, nebbish Christopher Denham (Argo), and a swaggering Harry Lloyd (Viserys Targaryen on Game of Thrones). And then there’s the great Daniel Stern, sporting a glorious beard, but hiding a devastating secret of his own.
Manhattan is actually the second scripted series WGN has ordered, if you count the schlocky Salem, which premiered in April. But it’s the first that is actually worth watching — not just “worth watching,” but worth getting invested in. It treads the same workplace period-piece ground as the vaunted Mad Men, but is ultimately more successful than any of the copycats even AMC has released in its wake (see: Hell on Wheels, Turn, or Halt and Catch Fire. Actually, don’t.) A lot of that is owed to its eye for historical detail: the Los Alamos set is fully enveloping, and quite impressive — a tip of the cap to production designer Ruth Ammon. And while the specifics of the plot aren’t exactly true to the real events (Winter is loosely based on scientist Seth Neddermeyer, but that’s as far as it goes), Manhattan has all the trappings of the early 1940s — shake your head at the blatant sexism and racism, yes, but also at a group of kids eagerly getting sprayed down with DDT. The latest episode, “Acceptable Limits,” includes a blackly comic look at the impenetrable Catch-22s of military bureaucracy, as the search for just who is in charge of the radiation safety protocols ends right where it began.
The series’s trump card, however, is legendary producer/director Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing), who sets the visual palette for the series (desaturated browns and blues, naturally) in the first two episodes, as well as its level of visual sophistication. That he’s staying attached to the show as an Executive Producer can only mean good things, as Manhattan not only sports his trademark fluidity of camerawork (no outright “walk-and-talks,” but close), but economy of storytelling. The series is at its best when it doesn’t lean on its symbolism so hard — only Matthew Weiner can get away with that, apparently — and remembers to include some levity. Winter’s team is more likable than Winter himself or Charlie Isaacs, the ostensible leads of the series, and when actors like Lloyd or Chernus are used well, its gives Manhattan the feeling of a well-oiled ensemble.
Halfway through its first season — and hopefully not last, because we all know what this is building to — Manhattan is beginning to live up to its potential, with strong characterizations, confident direction, and Big Idea storytelling. There’s a sense these days that there’s just “too much good TV” to keep up with it all, which is true — point only to backwater WGN America, inexplicably airing a show of this quality, and not receiving the same level of coverage as new shows on Showtime or Starz. Yet don’t dismiss Manhattan: dive in, and see if it doesn’t almost fill that Mad Men-sized hole in your heart.
When I asked, is it big enough, I meant, is it big enough that no sane person would ever dare to use it? Good men build their bigger and more efficient methods for human kind to exterminate itself, hoping the world will lose its hunger for horror, but our species seems to have an insatiable appetite.