“Manhattan” begins its first season deep into the action of a violent war. Not the second World War — the war for viewer eyeballs.
Admittedly, the stakes are far less significant, but even here in the depths of summer, there’s a glut of shows to watch, especially if you like your shows with some mix of class, sex and smarts. And no matter the time of year, it’s a bold move for a relatively new channel, WGN America, to launch a smart AMC-quality period drama — especially when its only prior original series, “Salem,” failed to make much of a mark with its first season.
However, “Manhattan” has some major advantages going for it. Set in the summer of 1943, the premise is immediately gripping: On a secret military base in the middle of New Mexico, scientists work to develop the “gadget” that will eventually become the atom bomb. While far from the front lines, they know their work could change the course of the war for good — making the secrets they take home and keep from their families as valuable as gold.
In the hands of a less subtle creative team, “Manhattan” could have descended into rah-rah patriotism; a show with less ambition would show stock footage of men at war, dying for the cause, with no hope in sight save its heroes. But while creator Sam Shaw and director Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”) keep the reality of life during wartime alive through one primary device — an ongoing count of the American soldiers dying every day overseas — their attention is just as much on the battles to be fought within Los Alamos.
Specifically this comes down to two separate teams trying two separate approaches (it wouldn’t be a government project without in-fighting and bureaucracy, after all), with the underdogs led by Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey).
Frank’s ragtag team of scientists, two episodes in, lack a proper amount of definition — there’s the suave British one (Harry Lloyd of “Game of Thrones”), the heavyset funny one (Michael Chernus, memorable as Piper’s slacker brother Cal on “Orange is the New Black”), the REALLY nerdy one (Christopher Denham), the Asian one (Eddie Shim) and the girl (Katja Herbers). But there’s no such thing as a status quo here — “Manhattan” doesn’t hesitate to shake things up — and each character shows signs of deeper development down the line.
“Manhattan” owes a lot to “Mad Men,” specifically in how it works to maintain a contemporary feel despite its period setting, and how it makes domestic life just as important as work life (while avoiding soap opera tropes). The difference, of course, is the stakes: When Sterling Cooper fails to secure a client, it doesn’t affect the fate of Western civilization.
The show toes a delicate line in toying with reality vs. fiction (while a few historical figures, such as Robert Oppenheimer, make appearances, the primary cast of characters is largely made up of composites). But it has at its advantage the relative American ignorance of the time and place depicted. Shaw, who worked as a journalist prior to moving to television, was a writer for the first season of “Masters of Sex,” another period drama investigating a little-known area of American history, and some mix of those experiences gives these people a certain, essential level of believability.
The series is led by Hickey, who despite being a relative unknown (previous roles including “The Big C” and a Tony-winning turn in “The Normal Heart” on Broadway) is a captivating presence — which is an achievement, given the prickly nature of his character. Frank might have Don Draper’s genius, but he lacks Don’s charm, and his internal battles with both his fellow scientists and the military prove captivating.
Ashley Zuckerman and Rachel Brosnahan as the Isaacs, newcomers to Los Alamos who function well as audience surrogates, are an intriguing pair, and Olivia Williams, who Jason Schwartzman memorably pined over in “Rushmore” (and more recently was a regular on Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse”) is alive and vibrant on screen.
The writing is a bit too quick to emphasize that her character, an educated botanist, is far outside the model of the typical American housewife of the era. But Williams serves as not just a playful foil for the military presence which controls Los Alamos, but the emotional anchor of the show, especially when it comes to her relationship with Frank. “We used to lie in the dark and tell each other everything,” she says to him in one memorable scene, a situation which can no longer be. Her acceptance of that tragedy in that moment almost serves to represent the show in microcosm.
“Manhattan’s” greatest strength, though, is in its defying of expectations: The first two episodes contain no shortage of shocks, and just because Los Alamos is far from the front lines doesn’t mean this show lacks a body count. However, while Shaw and Schlamme have done an amazing job of making this world feel real, so much happens in these first two episodes it’s unclear what direction we’re headed.
Will “Manhattan” stay close to home, emphasizing the domestic drama laid out? Will the global implications of the Manhattan Project consume the narrative? Striking the right balance between those elements is what will ensure that this strong beginning leads to a solid first season, which, one hopes, is the end result. In this oversaturated summer of quality drama, “Manhattan” faces tough odds. But it’s hard not to root for an underdog.