Skip to main content

See also:

On the path to become the Destroyer of Worlds

Period Piece at a Critical Point
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Manhattan

Rating:
Star4
Star
Star
Star
Star

WGN Superstation, a cable station set in Chicago, has been in existence for nearly a quarter of a century, but has only recently begun venturing into the world of original programming this year. Their second major project for television, Manhattan, takes an area of history that might not be the easiest to mine for drama--- Los Alamos in 1943, where a team of American physicists are frantically trying to creating the first atomic bomb--- and ventures into something that hasn't been seen on TV in quite some time.
Most of the historical personas are briefly seen but are rarely present--- Oppenheimer, Fermi, and the military personnel--- so the show chooses to focus on fictional people working on the real teams. Fat Man is being helmed by Alex Winter, a brilliant, utterly volatile personality (John Benjamin Hickey, doing his best work in any medium) who has no real friends, and is constantly isolating his family and the people he works with (including a virtually unrecognizable Daniel Stern). The other team is Thin Man, which has recently gained Dr. Isaacs, a PHd, who may be the most brilliant mind in science, and who was Winter's student, now cast as his rival.
In the series Pilot, Fat Man, the project that eventually built the first working atomic bomb, has been shunted aside for Thin Man, even though Winter believes that they can get their version ready a full six weeks before Isaacs. Desperate to keep his team together, he turned over mathematician Sid Lao, a Chinese man , as a spy. Lao had tried to take research that he had created for a camera to make money, but in order to protect his team and negotiate with a military that has no trust in the scientists at all (personified by Mark Moses, equally menacing), Winter turned him over as a spy, an action that eventually led to Lao's death. What is perhaps the most stunning thing about this action is that while Winter believes that he is trying desperately to save mankind that he believes individual lives must be sacrificed. Winter has already isolated himself from practically everyone including his own wife (Olivia Williams), and even though Isaacs detests Winter, one can very easily see how he might become him in the course of the series.
Manhattan moves at a gradual pace--- only three days have gone by in the first three episodes--- and a lot of the action is cerebral, not visual. Despite that, there is an utter fascination and realism that fills every vein of this particular batch of World War II America. The acting and writing are very good, and just as Masters of Sex and the early episodes of Mad Men have demonstrated, the series takes a very dark view at what we in the present have classified as the greatest generation. The military here isn't trying to save the world; they're desperately trying to get onto the front, and thump their chests louder than the so-called scientist who are doing all the work. The roles of women are even more diminished---- Mrs. Winter may be a scientist herself (a botanist), but she considers herself lucky to have more to do than complain about the lack of produce in the desert. And then there's the real horror that we in the present no about--- what happens when the scientists succeed. In the last episode, Winter broke military-imposed silence to tell his wife that "this thing we're working on isn't just going to end the war. It's going to end all wars." We all know he's only half right--- and that makes this struggle between two groups of scientists seem even more important and dangerous This is a stunning step forward for a network that barely jumped into original programming just this year.
My rating: 4.25 STARS.