WGN America’s second original series probably should have been its first. While its first original series, the supernatural witch drama Salem, offered a fun and campy (though often 100 percent confusing) ride, it's the World War II-set Manhattan, so named for the Manhattan Project, that stands poised to put a mostly unknown network on the map. Stylish and thought-provoking, the drama might just be WGN's own Mad Men, posing difficult questions of morality while probing the depths of the juncture where science and humanity meet. While it's too early to christen the series the next Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or [insert your favorite critically acclaimed drama here], I don’t think it’s wrong to say that Manhattan is exactly the type of show that AMC probably wishes it had right now.
The world presented in Manhattan—which films on location in New Mexico, with its ever-present layer of sand and
dust—is built on a foundation of secrets and lies. The scientists
who spend their days theorizing and strategizing on how best to build the first
weapon of mass destruction can’t tell their wives and families what they do all day, which leads to stress and fractured relationships at home.
However, the scientists and their families, are only one of several factions who call Los Alamos home. The United States Army is tasked with keeping order by eliminating potential spies from the super top-secret city (which even the vice president doesn’t know about). But they have little to no information about what they’re actually protecting, adding another layer to the power struggles at the heart of the series.
As Lord Acton once surmised regarding absolute power and its ability to corrupt, great men are almost always bad men. Does that mean the characters of Manhattan—who will ultimately have a hand in the deaths of thousands of people, but also in ending World War II—are bad men? That’s the question on the minds of the series' protagonists as they leave for work in the morning and return home at night, and of course, the answer is far from simple. As viewers, we have the advantage of knowing how this story ends, but the citizens of Los Alamos will face plenty of uncertainty in the weeks and months ahead.
“You Always Hurt the Ones You Love” opened in July of 1943, some 700 days before the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war in the Pacific and changing the world forever. John Benjamin Hickey’s Frank Winter is a no-bullshit scientist whose most famous contribution to the field remains just a theory; nevertheless, he's respected by his peers, and seemingly worshipped by some members of the younger generation. But he’s not in it for the fame or glory, but because he has the desire to Do the Right Thing (or as right a thing as can be, given the circumstances).
Together with Daniel Stern’s Glen Babbit—who sports the wizardiest beard a man can sport without actually being a wizard—Frank leads a ragtag team of young, ambitious scientists played by Harry Lloyd, Michael Chernus, Christopher Denham, Eddie Shin, and Katja Herbers. Every day that Winter and his group don’t or can’t produce results is another day in which young soldiers lose their lives, something Winter never lets his colleagues (or Manhattan's viewers) forget as he works tirelessly to come up with a viable design. And it’s Winter’s genuine goal to end the pain and suffering of his fellow men, paired with Hickey’s strong brow and enigmatic onscreen presence, that makes him a compelling lead character that you can’t help but root for.
But Winter and his team are not only racing against Germany to develop the first atomic bomb—they're also competing against a larger, better equipped, better funded, and better stocked (with bourbon, duh) American group led by David Harbour’s smug Reed Akley. Akley has the kind of face that's just begging to be punched, you know? And one of his new recruits appears to be quite a force: The young, impressionable, and extremely bright scientist Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) was asked to join Akley’s team under the guise that he’d be working in a radar lab. But it wasn't long after his arrival in Los Alamos with his wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), that he recognized the horrific implications of what he'd be working on, and his struggles with with he believes to be morally right—one of Manhattan's recurring themes—began.
Today, we're well aware of the effects of the bomb—not just the death toll, the burn radius, or the lasting consequences of radiation, but also the subsequent Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. The latter still exists, which allows Manhattan’s story to feel timely and relevant even though it takes place during an era that most of us have only ever read about. In the early 1940s, many of the people who called Los Alamos home had no knowledge of the far-reaching repercussions of the bomb; many of them only realized its true nature after Little Boy and Fat Man were dropped in August of 1945. But the most interesting element of Manhattan isn’t necessarily its theme of morality, its depiction of scientific breakthroughs, or the history lesson at its center, but the fact that its female characters are just as important to the story as its male ones.
The lone woman on Winter's team, Helen Prins (Herbers) is just
one example of how Manhattan challenges the stereotypical gender roles of the era. In a way, the ladies of Los Alamos are pioneers, making a life the best way
they know how despite less-than-comfortable accommodations and never fully
understanding why they’re calling this secluded town home. They’re liberated
and they exist outside the social norm because their lives demand it.
At a time when when most women wouldn't dream of wearing pants or taking on any responsibilities beyond those of a dutiful wife and mother, Winter’s
wife Liza (Olivia Williams) has a PhD in botany and doesn’t hide her
intelligence. She might have put her career on hold so her husband to chase
his dream, but she wears trousers—literally and metaphorically—as she refuses to stand idly by and accept the secrets
her husband is keeping. She actively challenges him to open up to her just as fiercely
as she investigates why the flowers planted behind her home aren’t the color
they’re supposed to be, or why residents of Los Alamos are forbidden from growing food despite New Mexico’s supposedly potassium-rich soil. Williams brings life and
strength to a character who would fit right into today’s world, making Manhattan feel
less like a boys club than it actually is.
Meanwhile, Manhattan's setting is as much of a character as any of the men and women who call Los Alamos home, which is a totally cliché to say, I know, but it's true. The series benefits greatly from shooting on location in New Mexico and not on a sound stage in Los Angeles, and even though it takes place in a desert, Manhattan is both sleek and stylish. Its backdrop of blue skies and sand recalls the rich landscapes that often made Breaking Bad such a visual delight, and its costumes, vintage cars, and other period details make it feel wholly authentic.
Created by Sam Shaw (a former writer for Masters of Sex) and directed by Thomas Schlamme (who helmed many episodes of The West Wing and invented the “walk and talk” style), the world of Manhattan might be small in size—Los Alamos doesn’t even register as a city, and not just because it technically doesn’t exist—but its reach, as we now know, spans the globe. The story being told is a familiar one, but the characters are new and their troubles are relatable. With intelligent protagonists and a story that still holds resonance today, Manhattan is absolutely worthy of our attention.
What'd you think of Manhattan's series premiere? Will you be back for Episode 2?
AIRED ON 12/15/2015
Season 2 : Episode 10