The thing you don’t expect, when watching a limited series about the FBI’s hunt for the Unabomber, is to find it relatable; at times, alarmingly so.
Discovery Channel’s first scripted drama, an eight-episode retelling of how Ted Kaczynski was brought to justice, might be most notable for its dense bench of a cast, including Sam Worthington, Chris Noth, Jane Lynch, Mark Duplass, Brian D’arcy James, Elisabeth Reaser, and Paul Bettany as Kaczynski. But its interest in the psychology of its characters pushes the series beyond a mere process story (though the process, as depicted, proves equally fascinating).
Watching the early episodes, “Manhunt: Unabomber” isn’t all that interested in getting inside Ted Kaczynski’s head. In fact, Bettany doesn’t appear on screen for quite some time. Instead, the focus is on Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Worthington), the profiler who despite his unlikely background was ultimately responsible for tracking down the famed profiler.
Kaczynski does get thorough development over the course of the season, but only in later episodes. Fitz is an interesting figure. We learn he was comparatively uneducated, working his way up from blue-collar origins to join the FBI, and once there, he spends much of his time fighting pre-established notions and the agency’s tangled bureaucracy just to get his ideas heard.
Fitz’s journey as a character verges on cliches — would you be shocked to learn that becoming obsessed with investigating a case can have a detrimental effect on your family life and career? — but as depicted here, Fitz is full of interesting quirks that make him a compelling everyman hero. Even when making bad choices, he remains a character who’s easy to root for, especially given his opponent.
But what proves notable over the course of the season is that it’s a journey which the show deliberately parallels with the Unabomber’s ultimate goal, which was not to bring terror to America, but to simply get America to listen to his anti-technology beliefs.
“Manhunt” never explicitly suggests that a desire for publication is an acceptable reason for domestic terrorism, but it does make clear just what drove Kaczynski to these ends. In fact, “Manhunt” does not shy away from letting Kaczynski’s words be heard, almost unedited, and even letting characters react positively to the intention.
There’s an argument to be made, even, that there’s too much empathy for the subject at times. After all, anyone publishing today can understand why Kaczynski felt so passionately about getting his voice out there. (Kaczynski would likely be offended by the suggestion that he should just figure out how the internet works, given his message, but clickbait is ethically far superior to bombing civilians.)
It’s fun to think of Worthington and Bettany taking a break from their busy schedules on the sets of “Avatar” and “The Avengers” to dig into this project, and both bring a great deal of commitment. Worthington especially adds an impressive level of subtlety to the role.
Beyond its leads, the supporting characters vary in definition and depth. A clear standout is Keisha Castle-Hughes as Tabby, one of the agents who assists Fitz in his pursuit. Castle-Hughes brings believable spunk to the composite character, and also gets a lot more to do than just contribute exposition. Casting directors, take note, as the one-time Oscar nominee for “Whale Rider” has more than enough charisma to lead a series.
In terms of depicting this time period, “Manhunt” is not the first show in recent memory to treat a decade that many of us still remember well as historical fiction, the most notable example being “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” In contrast to the way in which Ryan Murphy and his collaborators invoked period details, “Manhunt” emerges as a far more subtle depiction of the 1990s, only occasionally indulging in reminders that a lot has changed in the last 20 years. It puts its biggest emphasis on the state of technology being used at this time. Otherwise, the series keeps the aesthetic details accurate, but as a non-intrusive element of a deliberately grim background.
The result is television that (occasionally) fails to pop with excitement, but nevertheless engages on an almost Fincher-ian level. Add in the fact that it’s all really true, and looking away from “Manhunt” is a hard thing to do.
“Manhunt: Unabomber” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on Discovery.