While Hollywood just keeps churning out summer films not worth the price of admission, television continues to shine by constantly unveiling a number of new series far superior to anything currently showing on the big screen. Among the most recent of these is “Manhattan,” an absolutely brilliant period drama set in 1943.
As World War II rages in Europe, a mysterious settlement springs up in the desert of Los Alamos N.M., where scientists have gathered to work on something known as “the gadget.” Of course this became known as the Manhattan Project, and the gadget was the atomic bomb. Although the scientists have brought their wives and families to New Mexico, they are forbidden been to tell them why they are there, and, as you would expect, the stringent secrecy produces quite a bit of tension.
Among the scientists arriving in Los Alamos is Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), a young genius who has brought with him his wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), and their young son. After Charlie drives up to a checkpoint, he gets out of the car to inquire where he is, and someone tells him cryptically, “No names. No street signs. Welcome to nowhere.”
Charlie soon learns there are two major groups of scientists competing with each other to develop the bomb first. Charlie will be working for Reed Akley (David Harbour), head of the “Thin Man” group, which is the one with the most funding and also the one preferred by head honcho J. Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London).
Akley welcomes Charlie by saying, “This is Shangri-La. We’ve got the highest combined IQ of any town in America and more Jews than Babylon.”
Akley’s competition in the race for building the bomb is Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), an obsessively driven scientist who brought his wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), and their 16-year-old daughter, Callie (Alexia Fast) to the desert with him. Assisted by physicist Glen Babbit (Daniel Stern), Frank pushes his team day and night in an effort to outdo Akley’s group, and his intensity toward his job is taking its toll on his marriage and his family.
At one point a very frustrated Callie says, “Why are we even here? Everything is so Kafka-esque.”
Beginning with its overall look, “Manhattan” is an absolutely magnificent television production. The sets, the costumes, and the props capture the aura of 1943 so perfectly that you can actually feel as if you are living in the time period with the characters. Of course the series could hardly be anything less than great when you consider it was written by Sam Shaw (“Masters of Sex”) and directed by Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”). Because of Shaw the writing for the show is superb, and the dialogue is consistently crisp and fresh. In an online interview Shaw offered some interesting insight into and analysis of the series.
“A lot of the issues we’re trying to figure out now – secrecy and transparency in the government, the ethics of military intervention, and how we’re going to use the awesome military power at our disposal – all these conversations started in this proto suburban town in the middle of the desert. It felt like a way to tell a very contemporary story by looking at the past.
“It’s this weird living thing, a TV show. You have an idea of what a show is, and then you cast people, and they bring something else to the role. There’s an interesting resonance between two characters during a scene and it takes on a life of its own. You have hundreds of really talented, smart people from production designers to costumers to the cast to other writers to producers suggesting other avenues for the story. It’s about being open to the essential truth that TV is a collaborative medium.
“We make painstaking efforts to be as faithful to history and science as we possibly can be, as someone who is neither an historian nor a physicist. The model for us in a way is E.L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime.’ It’s a story that captures the emotional truth and texture of a time and place, although it’s populated with fictional characters. It was an incredibly strange moment in American history that seemed to lend itself toward longer-form storytelling, a television series rather than a movie.
“Part of the essential approach of this story was for it not to be a ‘great men of history’ piece. It is about the figures you read about in history books, but (also about) what life was like for the other 7,000 people living in this town. That also was a world full of guys who were test tube washers and women who censored letters and people whose stories haven’t been told before.”
In addition to the superior writing, another thing that makes “Manhattan” such a treat is the way it involves you in the lives of the various character, and this is attributable to the splendid acting. You won’t find one weak link in this stellar cast. Hickey is perfect as the curmudgeonly Winter, who puts his quest to develop the bomb before Akley’s group does above everything else, including his family. The resulting tension between Frank and his wife is very real, and Williams’ portrayal of Liza is at times heartbreaking. In an online interview Williams offered the following perceptive comment about her character.
“She’s highly intelligent but also quite fragile. I like to think of her as a sort of Cassandra. She is blessed with a certain amount of foresight and prophecy and cursed with never being believed. The lone voice can often be dismissed as the lone nutter.”
One of the major thorns in Frank’s side is Charlie, who has never forgiven Frank for something he did during Charlie’s days as a student. These two men really can’t stand each other, and their mutual animosity is interesting to watch as Zukerman and Hickey play their respective roles to the hilt.
Another notable performance is that of Brosnahan as Charlie’s confused, frustrated, and even frightened wife. She has no idea what is going on with her husband, but she senses he may be in real danger, and Brosnahan conveys her character’s feeling and emotions beautifully.
“Manhattan” is far superior to anything playing in the movie theaters right now, and it earns the final score of an explosive 10. It airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on WGN. Don’t miss it!