July 27, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Manhattan”


MANHATTAN:  Sunday 10PM on WGN America – Potential DVR Alert

If Salem was WGN America’s Hemlock Grove, the new MANHATTAN is the network’s bid for a House of Cards, a serious, classy drama that takes on Big Issues and is meant to put its network into another, higher league.  Of course, since WGN doesn’t have Netflix’s extremely deep pockets, Manhattan stars John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams instead of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and boasts of hailing “from the director of The West Wing” (meaning Thomas Schlamme, who directed West Wing‘s pilot and many episodes) instead of big-time movie auteur David Fincher.  (The two shows do share co-star Rachel Brosnahan, who plays the beleagured former prostitute on Cards.)

Also like House of Cards, Manhattan is a flawed but worthy effort.  The title refers to the Manhattan Project, the US Army’s top-secret program to develop the atomic bomb in the desert outside Alamagordo, New Mexico.  The story, created by Sam Shaw (a writer/producer on Masters of Sex last season) picks up in July 1943, more than 2 years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the Project was just getting underway, and the technology to produce the bomb was still very much in flux.

Schlamme, cinematographer John Lindley and production designer Ruth Ammon do a wonderful job of visualizing the wind-swept, rough-hewn town cobbled together in haste in an unwelcoming locale.  (Even though the eras are different, the show’s creation of a 360-degree world is reminiscent of Deadwood.)  A cross between suburbia and Hollywood plywood, the base is believably uncomfortable and yet ambitious in scale, and there are frequent reminders that those winds are blowing dangerous radiation over the inhabitants.

There have been at least two other major dramatic attempts to tell the story of the Manhattan Project, the big-screen Fat Man and Little Boy, and the TV-movie Day One, neither of which was particularly successful.  They both concentrated on real-life personages General Leslie Groves and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the military and scientific heads of the operation, while Manhattan is built largely around newly-created fictional characters (although Oppenheimer does make an appearance in the pilot).  That gives Shaw much more leeway to tell his story, but in the pilot, at least, the result is still somewhat problematic.

Partly it’s the hour throwing so much expository information at viewers so fast–about the science of the project, the political scheming behind the scenes, security issues, and the various scientists and their families–that very little sticks.  At least in the short run, though, Shaw has also failed to create characters who are particularly memorable.  The pilot focuses on two couples:  the Winters, Frank and Liza (Hickey and Williams), and the Isaacs, Charlie and Abby (Ashley Zukerman and Brosnahan).  Frank Winter is one of the leading scientists on the project, although as we meet him, his design of the bomb has lost ground to that of the more politically well-heeled Reed Akley (David Harbour); Liza herself has a PhD in Botany, but on the base she’s just another frustrated housewife.  Charlie and Abby are newcomers, Charlie a Jewish scientist desperate to do his part in the war, and Abby his young wife from a wealthy background.  What both couples share is a sense of dislocation, because their husbands are sworn to utter silence about what they’re really working on with such singleminded obsession.  (The pilot unfortunately ends with its very phoniest scene, an agonized Frank deliberately imparting his secret to the maid because he knows she doesn’t speak English.)

The four actors are all extremely good, but their characters have little shading in the initial hour.  The supporting players, mostly scientists on Frank’s team and wives in the town, are even sketchier, although Daniel Stern, as Frank’s colleague and mentor, can’t help but stand out with a pointed gray beard that manages to suggest both Satan and Santa Claus.  The military and bureaucracy are so far painted as blank-faced villains.

It remains to be seen whether Shaw can pull great drama out of this fascinating true-life story in the way that his former series did out of the less promising saga of sex therapists Masters & Johnson.  Even if Manhattan fails to realize its full potential, though, it’s an admirably big swing by WGN, a well-produced, intelligent piece of work about a critical footnote in world history.

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."