Manhattan is the Bomb

Manhattan (Photo: WGN America)
Manhattan (Photo: WGN America)

WGN America’s new World War II drama Manhattan delivers a strong cast, a strong story, and strong competition in the world of cable dramas.

Show

Manhattan, which airs Sundays at 10pm on WGN America. It will also be available on Hulu after a three-day delay.

Premise

Manhattan is a (loosely) historical drama about the Manhattan Project—the top secret military mission to develop an atomic bomb. The action takes place at the military camp near Los Alamos, New Mexico. However, once families move in, there’s no moving out until the war is over. The story begins on July 2, 1943: get comfortable.

Pedigree

WGN America is swinging for the fences on this one. The show was created by Sam Shaw who wrote three episodes of Masters of Sex last season. Thomas Schlamme, prolific director from The West Wing, is also an EP as well as the director of the pilot. Tony Award-winning actor John Benjamin Hickey plays the role of lead scientist Frank Winter. Jónsi & Alex, a side project of Sigur Rós, are in charge of music.

Who is Manhattan For?

Are you into historical/period drama? This is for you. If you are into military history and espionage, this is for you. What about people unable to escape their environment, such as Orange is the New Black or Under the Dome? Check and check. Also, if you like any parts of the pedigree, you should be satisfied with the pilot.

What Works

The pilot is quite impressive. The period elements are there, but are presented in a matter-of-fact way. Mad Men and AMC’s other programs can get a little too wink-wink with references to the era it is depicting, but Manhattan establishes its setting and moves on. The challenge with a story based on actual historic events is that the audience already knows how the story will ultimately resolve itself, so new angles have to be discovered/created. The elements I enjoyed the most were the civilians reacting to life in what is essentially a prison. The wives know secrets and have nothing to do but share those secrets with each other to try to figure out what the heck their husbands are doing (and what misinformation has been dropped). Meanwhile, the kids in the town have to tone down their ambitions, as their hopes and dreams may conflict with what the Army considers a security risk. Add in the military and espionage elements and you have quite a bit of tension in an already tense situation.

What Doesn’t Work

The ensemble for Manhattan is quite large and it will take a few episode to keep track of who’s who, who works for whom, and who has screwed over whom. And this is before the inevitable soap opera elements get added to the mix.

Verdict

If the full run of Manhattan is as strong as the pilot, WGN America may have found the show that will replace Mad Men in the zeitgeist. You should absolutely check out this show.

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About Mike McComb 656 Articles
Mike has been writing about TV online since 2008, when he started the blog WTF Little House on the Prairie? The blog was a project to practice writing about television analytically prior to getting an MA in Television-Radio-Film from Syracuse University, or as he likes to call it "TV Camp." After a lengthy stint at TVLatest, Mike wanted to launch a site that brought in classic TV, diamonds in the rough, and the shows everybody watches. E-mail: mike@whatelseison.tv