The only thing really wrong with Manhattan is that the material has been retread so many times. Not the Manhattan Project in particular (although it has been), but rather World War II, the last honorable war, fought against Nazis, the last unequivocal bad guys. As such, many of the visual and dramatic tropes of the series are incredibly familiar—radio broadcasts listing the numbers of the dead; sugar rationing; creased, tan garrison caps; oddly cheery war posters. America has been in a love affair with World War II narratives since long before Manhattan and it will continue to be for long after, and Manhattan’s greatness or not-greatness is a little washed out by its context.
Still, that recognition is likely why WGN optioned this particular show into life for its second scripted drama: It’s recognizable. It’s easy to understand. It’s safe. The viewer can be counted on to get it, in the first few minutes. And unlike its first show, Salem, this one has an air of sophistication.
What’s encouraging, though, is that Manhattan is more than just its setting—in fact, the first two episodes presented to critics go well out of their way to shake up our notion of what a World War II story is. Despite many available clichés, the narrative eschews anything obvious—this is a character drama first, and a war story second. Or to be more exact, it’s a character drama that is using the setting of Los Alamos, New Mexico, the site of the Manhattan Project, to pull all of its characters through the wringer.
And it’s eager to upend the story conventions of World War II (affectionately skewered by Kate Beaton in what could be termed “the hunk narrative”) that makes out America’s soldiers to be row after row of fresh-faced white men driven to Europe by a fervent desire to save the Jews from Hitler, liberate the world from tyranny, and plant a flag and an apple pie in every French home—all while looking handsome. Instead, Los Alamos is engaging in a kind of war that is now our most common kind—a war conducted by highly paid military scientists well behind the lines of combat. A highly secretive war—for all that the wives and families of these scientists have been dragged out to the middle of nowhere for their husbands’ work, they have next to no idea what their men are actually working on. Even the scientists themselves do not have the full scope of what they’re doing—a few more thoughtful ones have considered what nuclear weaponry could do for the world after World War II. But most are fixated on bombing the hell out of Hitler.
A noble but depressing delusion: The show starts in 1943, when Nazi Germany was still going strong. None of the scientists present can predict that their weapons will be used against Japan, instead.
It’s that kind of dramatic irony that fuels the story of Manhattan—a story where the viewer knows how it ends, but the scientists are still figuring it out. At the center of the story is Frank Winter, played by John Benjamin Hickey. Save a cartoonish shock of white hair, he is the prototypical mad scientist—crotchety, internal, possessed by visions of near-apocalypse, haunted by the mounting numbers of the dead. He’s not a historical figure—the only historically accurate name here is Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist in charge of the whole project. But he’s presented as the man with the answer to the A-bomb, thwarted by bureaucracy and funding and time. In the first two episodes, he’s pitted against another scientist, Reed Akley, played by David Harbour. With them both is the fascinating and dysfunctional world of the Los Alamos labs—a world where scientists working with plutonium can’t tell their wives that they’re plotting to destroy the world; where nerds blow off steam by calculating the gravitational acceleration of the planet Krypton; where “computers” are women typing out calculations en masse in a crowded room.
Manhattan offers what is by now period-TV old standbys, but tempers them with the soft, fluid vision of executive producer Thomas Schlamme, who directs three episodes this season. At times the visual adventurousness is at odds with the fairly straightforward storytelling, but it offers a sense of what the show is trying to do.
Manhattan is created by Sam Shaw, who formerly worked on Masters Of Sex, and the traces show in his new project. Manhattan is a story of intimacy in the midst of the war machine, and that leads to little storylines pursuing tales of budding friendships and strained relationships. All of the marriages in the show are put to the test by secrecy and the trials of living in the desert during rationing. In one particularly powerful scene, Frank, so weighed down by the secret of the A-bomb—and his own fears of what it will do to the world—confesses the true nature of his project to the Spanish-speaking maid who doesn’t understand a word he’s saying.
Another way that the show upends the traditional World War II narrative is its investment in the fringe populations of America in 1943: Los Alamos has a large Spanish-speaking population of either Mexicans or Native Americans that witness the takeover of their rural town by the military-industrial complex. The largely white protagonists rarely interact with them besides giving them laundry or buying peyote, but Shaw does the population the credit of not erasing them from history, when it would have been easy to do so. The story of a Los Alamos scientist targeted as a potential spy is intriguing for similar reasons. The motivation behind the targeting is ambiguous—is the scientist a victim of circumstance, or race, or their own wrongdoing?—without making it particularly preachy. Manhattan draws the viewer into the many personal challenges that come to the forefront in a war that is essentially about identity—America versus the bad guys, sure, but who or what counts as American in 1943?
Ultimately it’s that frisson of complication that makes Manhattan worth watching—the performances are good, the writing is good, and the premise is good, but the complication of our own history is involving and fantastic.