October 20, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Manhattan”


Audiences of TV drama have the luxury these days of being spoiled, and that raises the question:  what separates a great series from one that’s merely very good?  WGN America’s MANHATTAN had an original, intriguing premise and setting, exploring the scientific and personal tensions amid the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb at the hidden base of Los Alamos in New Mexico, with cameo appearances from historical figures like Dr. Robert Oppenheimer but mostly through fictional creations.  Its scripts, under series creator Sam Shaw, have been unfailingly intelligent, with sharply-drawn characters, historical insight and perceptive parallels between the technology depicted and its inventors.  It’s been extremely well performed by an ensemble cast led by John Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Zukerman, Rachel Brosnahan, Olivia Williams and Daniel Stern.  Its visuals, supervised by Executive Producer and sometime director Thomas Schlamme (best known for his work on Aaron Sorkin’s series) have been exceptional both for their period detail and atmospheric sense of a barren, lonely, yet bustling location.  Nevertheless, while Manhattan was engrossing on a week-to-week basis, its first season never quite achieved dramatic critical mass.

Part of the problem may have been that its science was, by definition, all theory.  The bomb itself didn’t exist in 1943, when the season took place, not even as a prototype.  That left the characters mostly staring fixedly at chalkboards, occasionally scribbling madly on one or erasing it in disgust.  Although Shaw and his fellow writers did a fine job of explaining the crucial differences between the two competing theories of the bomb, the so-called “Thin Man” method and implosion, which in the show were developed by two rival teams led by the politically-skilled Reed Akley (recurring guest star David Harbour) and the obsessively driven Frank Winter (Hickey), there was just so much drama to be found in discussions of varying burn rates and degrees of plutonium purity.

A bigger issue was that the show’s two central protagonists, Winter and the younger Jewish scientist Charlie Isaacs (Zukerman), were generally unpleasant to be around.  The “dark” hero is, of course, a central trope of this modern golden age of TV, but people like Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter White, whatever their awful flaws, are also thrilling anti-heroes, loaded with charisma and some level of wit.  Winter and Isaacs were both almost unremittingly grim, and it was hard to care what happened to them, even though their actions were important on a much larger historical scale than anything those other characters did.  The show also did an uneven job of balancing its stories; plotlines like the romance between Winter’s daughter and a young MP disappeared during the course of the season, while the bipolar condition of Winter’s wife (Williams) came and went.  The only truly fleshed-out character was Isaacs’s wife Abby (Brosnahan), who shocked herself by having a lesbian romance with her neighbor and who ultimately betrayed her lover.

Betrayal, and its cousin secrecy, were the major themes of the season in general, and that was true of tonight’s season finale as well.  Written by Shaw and directed by Schlamme, it dealt with the consequences of the previous episode’s shocking conclusion, with Akley putting a shotgun in his mouth and pulling the trigger after realizing that the Thin Man design was doomed to failure.  Winter was promoted to take over the entire bomb development program, but meanwhile the show went back to one of its favorite wells for much of the hour, the shrewdly demonic intelligence officer with the carefully chosen name Occam (Richard Schiff).  After Abby’s relatives, believed dead in Russia, turned up at Ellis Island, Occam pulled in Charlie and Abby for interrogation, in the belief that Charlie had given secrets to the Soviets in exchange for the safety of Abby’s family.  At the end of the episode, though, Winter’s self-disgust at all the people he’d allowed to be ruined in order to pursue the making of the bomb caught up with him, and he deliberately implicated himself on the surveillance recorder he found in his own house, taking blame with the dead Akley for the project’s security breaches.  He was last seen being transported off “the hill” with a bag over his head.  (An ironic but not unexpected coda revealed that actually the Russian spy was the most mild-mannered, blandest member of the development team.)

Manhattan had what would have to be termed terrible ratings, but it’s served its purpose for WGN, showcasing the network’s willingness to air challenging, serious original drama in a way that should raise its cable operator subscriber fees and attract high-level talent.  That won it a Season 2 renewal, and it’ll be interesting to see where the series goes next year.  It would seem to be awfully hard to find a way to reverse Winter’s banishment from Los Alamos without a huge contrivance, but if Hickey (and also Williams) stays gone, and with implosion now the sole method of the bomb’s development, next season would be quite different than this one.  Perhaps, as with implosion, Manhattan is just a Eureka! moment away from achieving the greatness it seeks.  For now, its firepower has been less than its grasp.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."