August 4, 2014

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “Manhattan”


MANHATTAN:  Sunday 10PM on WGN America

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at SHOWBUZZDAILY, we look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on MANHATTAN:  Starting in 1943, the New Mexico desert housed a mysterious, ultra-secret military and scientific operation code-named The Manhattan Project, its mission to create the first atomic bomb (or as they called it, the “gadget”).  There were two opposing designs for the gadget.  The better-funded and more established team was headed by Reed Akley (David Harbour), while the more ragtag group was anchored by the obsessed, emotionally strained Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), whose wife Liza (Olivia Williams), herself a scientist but not part of the Project, tried to cope with the stress of her husband’s moodiness and the general disorder of the base.  The camp newcomers were Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), a physicist on Akley’s team, and his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan).  In the pilot, Frank was told that his group was going to be disbanded in favor of Akley’s, but he bought their reinstatement by making a deal with the military police, turning in one of his scientists, Sid Laio (Eddie Shin) for stealing secrets even though he knew Sid’s motives were apolitical–he just wanted to sell photographic patents for the money.

Episode 2:  Manhattan is on much stronger ground dramatically when it’s telling the history of the creation of the bomb and the politics behind it than when it tries to tell personal stories.  Frank, already so stressed-out at this early stage of the series that he might be a serial killer by the season finale, faced two crises in the show’s second hour, which was written by series creator Sam Shaw and directed by Thomas Schlamme.  Although Frank had technically gotten the Army to keep his group together, Akley and the senior staff refused to give Frank even a tiny portion of the plutonium harvested by scientists in Chicago, making Frank’s research and design useless.  He schemed to get his hands on the plutonium, first by having one of his team, Helen Prins (Katje Herbers) try to talk her way past Charlie into Astley’s storeroom, and then by trying to prove that even with conventional explosives, his implosion design could work.  Both efforts failed.  Meanwhile, Sid Laio was being brutally interrogated by an Army investigator (guest star Richard Schiff), and when Frank tried to help, not only did Sid figure out that Frank was the one who’d betrayed him, but Sid’s attempt to escape led to his being killed by a guard.

Both these plotlines were compelling, with the 24-hour clock put on Frank’s implosion attempt keeping the episode tense.  The family stories were comparative footnotes.  We had another helping of Abby’s difficulties in the primitive camp (her stove caught on fire), and she was befriended by Liza, who invited Abby and Charlie to dinner.  That went disastrously, which was all part of the foreplay that’s eventually going to lead Charlie and Frank, who hate each other on sight, into joining forces.  (By the end of the episode, Charlie was secretly working on Frank’s implosion calculations, doubtless to figure out where they went wrong.)

Manhattan is still more of an intriguing idea for a drama than a powerhouse.  Hickey’s ever-stubbled cheeks and fixed glare are in danger of being exaggerated, while the Isaacs have yet to become very interesting as individuals, and except for the brief time spent with Helen, the other scientists are still mostly vague at this point.  The production’s look, and Schlamme’s visual control of the hour, especially in the sequences set in Sid’s interrogation room, are among the show’s assets, but not enough to make up for characters who need to start being developed sooner rather than later.

Manhattan debuted to tiny ratings last week, even as compared to WGN’s original programming debut last spring with Salem, but this series was made less as a ratings play than as a vehicle to get the network some prestige and even awards attention.  So far the first goal is at least a modest success, and if the second doesn’t seem quite in its grasp, the show’s potential remains very high.


PILOT + 1:  Not Yet At Critical Mass


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."