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Pity poor Manhattan, one of the poster boys for our Too Much TV era.
A sturdy, handsomely made period drama you may not have even realized exists, airing on a network you may still think only broadcasts Cubs’ games, Manhattan has committed the cardinal sin of merely being very good in a programming moment that emphasizes greatness and awfulness.
Manhattan returns to WGN America on Tuesday (October 13) for its second season and it hasn’t made one of those leaps that might cause critics to yell into the void that this is a classic drama that viewers are missing out on, but it still features a superb and growing ensemble cast, a textured commitment to period detail, the smooth execution of some of TV’s best directors and the looming potential of atomic detonation to give it all some dramatic juice.
Reuniting pilot scribe Sam Shaw and director Thomas Schlamme, the Manhattan premiere starts in July 1945 on the night of the Trinity nuclear test. As viewers of the first season may remember, we were still a long way from that crucial event when we left, so the story swiftly zips back 18 months. It’s unclear if all that backstory is going to be packed into a single season — a time jump has been promised — but the passage of time and the specifics of scientific exploration have never been what Manhattan does best.
Because the majority of the Manhattan characters are either entirely fictional or loose composites, Manhattan thrives not when it’s laboring to explain challenging concepts, but when it’s chronicling the sweaty, grimy, sand-strewn, tortured progress towards those concepts under the greatest pressure imaginable. The show’s characters are brilliant and constantly pushed to or past the breaking point, and while they may be fighting off radiation poisoning or cracking the secrets of implosion, it’s the strain of divided loyalties, complicated sexual dalliances or leadership jockeying that matter. Manhattan is a smart workplace drama that occasionally deals with communist spies or dawning awareness of the Holocaust.
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That’s how Manhattan is sometimes, but not always, able to dodge what I’ve found to be a frustrating stumbling block. From J. Robert Oppenheimer on down, there were real scientists and military leaders at work on the Manhattan Project, but Manhattan‘s main characters are uncompromising genius Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) and more compromised genius Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), who work with teams of imagined geniuses. Rather than denying or ignoring the existence of Oppenheimer — and many key historical figures are completely ignored — Manhattan featured a couple appearances by Daniel London as the famed theoretical physicist and the second season has expanded his presence. In the four episodes made available to critics, Shaw and his writing team have approached Oppenheimer as a challenge this season, both for themselves and for the show’s characters. There’s an attempt, not a well-articulated one, to show Oppenheimer’s non-scientific necessity to the Manhattan Project and an attempt, much more successful, to turn Oppenheimer and his personal failings into another problem that our characters must solve. Even if it doesn’t always work, having Oppenheimer more generally visible, and played with a nice squirmy intensity by London, is less distracting than evading him.
But even if The Bomb has become an Oppenheimer-centric story in the popular consciousness, Manhattan isn’t truly shifting its focus. Last season, we saw Frank essentially sacrifice himself so that Charlie could advance their research, but those choices have serious ramifications. Charlie still has to gain the respect of a team prone to hate him, including the scientist sharing his bed (Katja Herbers‘ Helen), while wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) may be taking on Lady Macbeth shadings, despite last season’s infidelities of her own. And though Frank may not be on The Hill anymore, his new location is confidential and the centerpiece for a fantastic second episode driven by guest star Justin Kirk. Richard Schiff‘s menacing spook is still lurking on the margins in search of the mole we already learned was Christopher Denham‘s Meeks and a new military figure is taking over the operation and you can be sure that William Petersen‘s Bible-quoting Colonel Darrow will only have limited patience with egg-heads.
There’s a level of stress at work in Manhattan that keeps ratcheting up and keeps asking more of the capable stars. In addition to yielding fine work from Hickey in the second episode, Frank’s absence is causing trouble for wife Liza (Olivia Williams), whose history of mental instability earns interesting flashback treatment. Denham gets a lot to work with as Meeks’ motivations are revealed, while impending doom also boosts opportunities for Michael Chernus to keep Fritz both romantically earnest and funny and for Harry Lloyd to keep Crosley slithery and interestingly ambitious. As the girl actually working in the midst of this boy’s club, Herbers continues to give what may turn out to be the show’s breakout performance, though Williams and Brosnahan also are key to keeping Manhattan from drowning in testosterone.
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Between death and exile and imprisonment, characters on Manhattan seem to come and go and with strong scripts, an all-star team of directors — Schlamme is followed by Dan Attias, Andrew Bernstein and Christopher Misiano in the rotation — and superlative production design (Ruth Ammon) and costuming (Alonzo V. Wilson), you can see why guest stars are being drawn to the New Mexico desert. Beyond Kirk and Peterson, early episodes feature the likes of Michael O’Neill, Mamie Gummer, a surprisingly feisty Neve Campbell and a few first season figures you might not have expected to see return.
Still in the shadow of the Cubs, heavily promoted CBS repeats and incompatibly trashy Salem on its own network, and unlikely to be liberated from that shadow by a nice Emmy win for its opening credit sequence, Manhattan is still a meaty historical thriller. There’s an audience for those if viewers just take notice.
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