“Manhattan” launched at an awkward time: mid-summer, on the already-crowded Sunday nights. And it launched in an awkward place: the relatively unknown network WGN America, which the average cable subscriber might struggle to find in their listings.
But the dramatic weight of the story being told — the development of the atomic bomb, which would eventually end World War II, but in 1943 seemed like an illusive pipe dream — was given the weight and depth it deserved by creator Sam Shaw (“Masters of Sex”) and director Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”). And the cast, which ranged from standout established performers (John Benjamin Hickey, Olivia Williams, Daniel Stern) to a top-shelf younger class on the verge of breaking out (Ashley Zuckerman, Harry Lloyd, Rachel Brosnahan), tore into the meaty paranoia of a scientist’s life under the thumb of the U.S. Government.
The result? WGN America renewed “Manhattan” for a second season last week, just before the first season finale aired. And Shaw told Indiewire about not holding anything back for Season 1 while keeping true to to the spirit of history, how “Manhattan” gave them the opportunity to tell a story about Holocaust denial, the one time they tried to drop an F-bomb and the importance of secondary distribution through Hulu Plus in attracting newcomers to the show. (We edited out all of the major spoilers, in case that last bit describes you.)
The season finale was written before you had a guarantee of a pick-up — but it still scatters the characters and ends on a cliffhanger. At that stage, did you have a good feeling going into it that you’d have a pick up?
I had a feeling we would be coming back. The cliffhanger was a loaded gun that we were pointing at the network, trying to force them to bring us back. [Laughs.] But it wasn’t actually that calculated or that cynical. I think we just tried to construct the most satisfying end to the story, one that is also a new beginning. I’m very happy that we now have a guarantee to keep telling the story after the finale.
When you were writing it, did you know how you were going to bring characters back together for Season 2?
We have a lot of plans. One thing I will say is, what I didn’t do until we got the official pick-up was open a Final Draft document and start typing. That says more about my own superstition than anything else. [Laughs.] But we love these characters and the world of this show, so even if we deliberately tried not to write episode 201, 202 and 203 in our heads, it would be impossible.
From the very beginning, you were not afraid of exploding — I apologize for using that word, I’m sure you’re sick of it at this point — but the team dynamic set up in the first episode was disrupted pretty quickly. Was there a reason why you deconstructed the original team so quickly, rather than relying on it?
I guess we were never interested in telling a story that felt like a safe and predictable workplace drama, one in which the pleasure of tuning in every week is watching variations on the dynamics between the lovable family of eccentric physicists we brought together week in and week out. It felt like the subject matter called for storytelling that was more precarious and less predictable, one where the dynamics get thrown out and broken. You can see that a couple of times over the course of the season.
Is there something specific that you feel that gave you? As writers?
I will answer that question retrospectively, looking back at the way that the season unfolded organically. We didn’t go into the season with an intellectual idea that we wanted to break up or change the power structure of the team. There were some things we did know going into it. One was the relationships: At the center of the show and the season was going to be this relationship between Charlie (Ashley Zuckerman) and Frank (John Benjamin Hickey). We talked a lot about this great old western “shootist” sort of story, of a complicated generational relationship between a younger gunslinger and an older gunslinger. The progression of Frank and Charlie from their start as rivals to uneasy colleagues brought together by necessity — that was central to what we knew the arc of the season was going to be.
So much of this is working with composite characters, and manipulating historical events to whatever degree you need for dramatic effect. How far do you feel like you actually ended up altering history?
Well, here’s the rule that we set for ourselves — to the extent that we had a rule. We did everything that we possibly could to create as a carefully researched, specific, and accurate kind of stage, a historical and time-fixed stage, as we could — on which our characters could play out their personal stories. So, the broad strokes of history are true.
If the question is how I would look back retrospectively at how true to history we were, I think the most important thing to us was to preserve the emotional truth of this place, even if the characters and stories are fictional. The sense of what it was to be in a town of secrets, to be in a marriage where suddenly your essential ability to communicate with your partner is choked off. I think all of those things grow very closely to the truth of the experience of the people who were actually there.
One thing that I find interesting about the show is that it’s set during a time period normally depicted as being full of patriotism, but in “Manhattan” it almost feels like the government is the enemy — in Los Alamos, it’s certainly always watching. I was wondering if that was an intentional move on your part.
That’s what is really interesting. We certainly didn’t put it quite in those terms, but I do think there is something really fascinating about this moment at the end of World War II. There was a hopeful faith in our government and in our institutions, and the people who were supposed to protect us — something we lost very quickly thereafter and never really recovered. In a way, these were origin stories not just of a super power, but a different kind of military-industrial complex and a different kind of military secrecy.
I also think it’s a story about a moment when we lost innocence. So that was very interesting for us to write about, the experience of different characters thrust into the world of the show, with mostly noble intentions. Many of them with the idea that they were not just going to end this war, they were going to cure the world of the ills of war forever. In order to save Western democracy and freedom, they agreed to give up almost all of their freedoms and live in this odd quasi-finite state.
One other thing that’s really interesting is that you bring in the Holocaust, during a time when it was barely understood what was happening. I was wondering what went into making that reveal so early?
Charlie and Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) are Jewish — there were a lot of Jews who were involved in the Manhattan Project, in one way or another. It felt like a part of the story and the rationale for developing the bomb that we needed to reckon with. In the end, the choice that we made in the episode that fundamentally engrains the Holocaust home was in Episode 8 — and it became an opportunity for us to tell a story about Holocaust denial.
It’s a curious story that we add into that episode, where Abby is confronted with the broad strokes of the truth of this malicious thing that is happening on the other side of the world, and it even has personal implications for her and for her family, but she cannot connect with it emotionally. And the truth is I don’t really judge her for that — I think that she is a character who has her own blinders on and is a product of her environment. That felt like a really interesting way for us to access the subject matter that is hard to figure out how to dramatize or reckon with it, just because its such a huge and fraught subject matter.
Being able to couch it in the time period must help.
Yeah, but the truth is, this is a moment right now, where I find it almost impossible to read the newspaper, and then I feel terrible and like an ostrich sticking my head in the sand if I don’t. A lot of horrible things are happening in the world, and while a lot of them are happening right here, many are very far away and I feel kind of insulated from them. It was very interesting to us to be able to tell a story about what it is to be willfully ignorant, and feel like you are insulated from horrifying events that are taking place far enough away that you can pull the curtains and ignore them if you choose to.
So in terms of approaching the first season, did you ever feel the urge to hold something back for Season 2? Or was it just full throttle, throw everything at the wall and see what sticks?
I had a writing teacher who once gave me the advice to never save anything, never save a deeper story for tomorrow because you don’t know if you’ll get another one. And that is certainly the case for us. There are pieces of the story that we knew we wouldn’t get to tell in the first season, that would have to wait for a second season or a third, just because to a certain extent we’re shackled by the constraints of history. You can’t drop the atom bomb in 1943. But with that said, in terms of the characters’ stories, we really hit with everything we had.
WGN America is a relatively young network; you hear AMC and FX have very specific rules about what you are and aren’t allowed to do — but I imagine that WGN is a little more elusive at this point. Was that your experience?
It was, and I guess it’s a very interesting thing. So much of the TV that is the most exciting to me in the last while is something that pops up in totally unexpected places — on networks that either I didn’t really know anything about or associated with movie re-runs. And I think that, not accidentally if that’s the case, in this Wild West of new networks entering the world of original programming, this is a golden opportunity where you have executive who are willing to experiment based on the vision of creators, writers, and directors.
And so our experience with WGN is a really happy one — they love the show, they believe in the show. It’s been great. There are some hazards to working in basic cable; I wish we didn’t have commercial breaks, and I wish our characters could use some colorful language that we can’t use on our network, but otherwise it’s just been a really happy marriage.
Are you forbidden to ever unleash an F bomb?
You know what, I had this idea, I don’t know when this got started, but I had this idea that you get one “fuck” per season. I don’t know who perpetrated this myth, I think I encountered it with AMC at some point — maybe that was true there. But we have a scene that we shot, in which we exercised our one F-bomb of the season, and then ultimately unfortunately, we were unable to use those takes. We had to swap it out.
Can you say which scene it was?
Yeah, there’s a scene in Episode 12, it’s a big conflict scene, and it ends with Charlie telling Frank to “Get the fuck out of his house.” It was a very powerful moment performed by Ash Zukerman. Unfortunately for posterity, Charlie will now forever more tell Frank to “Get the hell out of his house.” Happily, his performance makes up for any of the line differences.
One nice element of working with WGN is that you were able to get a pretty nice deal with Hulu Plus where it was available there day-after. Did you observe any specific impact from having that secondary distribution?
Yeah, I think it was really helpful to us. One thing that we noticed is particularly in the back half of the season, people were coming to the party late and catching up on our show — of course we’re on iTunes too, so people can buy a season pass to our show or buy it all. But I think a lot of people have found the show late, which I am thrilled about. I’m really thrilled that the network was excited about that arrangement. I think that they just want to lower the barriers of entry, and bring the show to this wider viewership. Particularly with a new show on a network that doesn’t have a real pedigree in terms of its original content, and in a moment where there is so much incredibly great TV on, it’s not hard for a show to get lost.
So much of this great TV you mention also airs on Sunday nights — was that ever something you were concerned about? That people just wouldn’t have time to keep up with “Manhattan”?
That was a choice that was above my pay grade, but it is true that Sunday night is like a steel cage death match of incredibly great television.
But you feel like you did okay.
We survived. Here we are, we lived to tell the tale. I’m incredibly thrilled and gratified that the network has given us a chance to keep telling the story, and it’s been really great to see the show get into a second wind of viewership with a lot of people now finding it later on.
What’s been the most exciting thing about watching the show build over the last season?
One thing that’s super cool is this incredible culture of discussion and recapping and TV criticism and reviewing, particularly online. We didn’t get a lot of recaps and weekly write-ups at the start of this season, except for a couple of very unexpected champions of our show, including Popular Mechanics and Scientific American, which has been such a crazy place to be recapped and reviewed.
Plus, at a certain point, it came to feel like a great badge of honor for the writers. It’s been really gratifying to us, when people who are scientists and in the science community, or people who are physicists, tell us that they watch our show and that they love our show, that they feel like the world of science and the culture of scientists is represented faithfully in our show. That means a lot to us because none of us are physicists, for the most part we’re all flunking English majors. It takes a lot of hard work on all of our parts, a lot of incredibly patience on part of all of our technical advisors, who do their best to make sure we are accurate. That’s been very cool.
What do you feel is the best publicity that the show has gotten?
That’s a very interesting question. [Laughs.] I don’t know, what do you think?
I was going to say that if you want to say the Popular Mechanics recaps, that’s totally fine by me.
Those have been great, part of the deal is that we have a fan base of people who love our show and love to tweet about our show — I love to read their tweets, that’s been great.
I will say that I think the Season 2 pick up is certainly helpful. It may sound crass but I can say for myself that as a viewer of TV, I’m always much more inclined to jump into a show and decide to get involved with a bunch of characters and follow them for hours and hours and hours on end — that’s a big commitment, and I always feel much safer making that commitment if I know that a show is going to stick around. Nobody wants to back a political candidate who’s not going to make it past the primary, so I think it’s been really helpful to us now to have this Season 2 pickup.
It’s actually had a proven effect on ratings. Earlier this summer, this NBC show “Night Shift” — I think its first two episodes did middling-to-fine, then it got a Season 2 pick-up and the ratings jumped up like 25 percent.
It totally makes sense as a person who consumes TV. It makes perfect sense to me.
It will be exciting to see what your ratings are on Sunday, then.
Yeah I think so, but I think it’ll take time. I hope that people will continue to find our show, and that they will love it as much as we love making it. The show is a huge labor of love on the part of so many people. We’re really proud of it.
An all-day marathon of “Manhattan” Season 1 starts at 11am ET/8am PT on Sunday, October 26 on WGN America.