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Sunday, August 3, 2014

MANHATTAN Ignites

Article originally written for Seat42F.



WGN America is making huge plays these days to elevate itself from ‘superstation’ to full-fledged cable network, including creating their own content. Their first original drama, Salem, is good. Their second, MANHATTAN, which premiered last night, is even better.

Set in Los Alamos, New Mexico, which was unnamed in the 1940s when this story takes place, the series dramatizes the invention of the atomic bomb, with a focus on those who helped design and formulate it, as well as their families. A highly secretive project, the men and women employed by the U.S. government at this isolated site were among the best and the brightest. Their spouses often were not, and were not even trusted with knowing what the employees were desperately working on, racing against Germany to end the war.

MANHATTAN is besieged by the ticking clock. The Americans believed that Hitler was also working on the bomb-to-end-all-bombs, and that he was close to finishing it. Thus, they are spurred on not only by patriotism, which nearly all of them possess in spades, but also by the fear of the consequences should they lose the race. As one character muses when his daughter wants to go to college in New York, to paraphrase, ‘A densely populated city on the East Coast? No way.’

The pilot, “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” introduces us to a lot of characters, but thankfully, it keeps the core cast small enough to handle. There’s: Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey, The Big C), a brilliant scientist leading a small team competing with Akley’s (David Harbour, The Newsroom) much bigger, more well-funded one; Frank’s wife, Liza (Olivia Williams, Dollhouse), a botanist with a PhD who isn’t allowed to plant crops in the complex; new recruit Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman, Rush), who is physically nauseated when the purpose of the place is revealed; and Charlie’s wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan, House of Cards), who wants to go home, and will likely get Charlie into trouble.

These four are surrounded by a large group of wonderful players, including Daniel Stern (Home Alone, City Slickers), Josh Cooke (Dexter), Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones), Eddie Shin (Men of a Certain Age), Michael Chernus (Orange is the New Black), Christopher Denham (Argo), Katja Herbers Alexia Fast (Jack Reacher), Richard Schiff (The West Wing), and Mark Moses (Mad Men), but keeping these two couples at the core helps ground the narrative.

Many issues are brought up and dealt with in MANHATTAN, even when just considering the pilot. There’s the military state, security that may be over the top or could be construed as necessary, depending on your perspective. There’s the political nature of the hierarchy, as Frank finds out when he approaches Oppenheimer (Daniel London, Mildred Pierce) with a better idea than Ackley’s, but is shot down anyway. There is the splintering of marriage when trust is broken, mainly because of the constraints of the job. There is the constant threat that even the best intentions could get one into serious trouble, and rumors and gossip spread quickly. There is the challenge of living in a new environment in the middle of nowhere, a major stressor on those who aren’t in the office at all hours.

Yet, despite the extremely full hour-plus running time, MANHATTAN is not overwhelming. Instead, it presents a complex structure with interesting topics and people, an authentic-seeming look at an important part of history. The moral quandaries of The Manhattan Project are still debated today, so MANHATTAN, besides being an entertaining drama, is also a way for modern people to sort out mixed feelings about it, and also get some historical perspective. I find myself thoroughly engrossed and excited about this series.

MANHATTAN airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on WGN America.

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