Is it possible to have the fate of the world in your hands and not fall apart based on the weight of the responsibility alone when no one can know what you do for a living? Can you handle the fear of the unknown when the government’s presence was a much more tangible figure? That’s only part of the complex premise of WGN America’s new show “Manhattan,” which examined the long term effects of building a nuclear bomb and how it shaped the people in and outside the project for better or worse. The show’s premise has been done before to some extent by similiar programs in the past, but it decided to focus on the people not as high up the totem pole instead to give viewers another perspective of the throes of stopping a war. It’s got some potential, but it needs to sharpen its focus to a core group to keep viewers interested longer.
“Manhattan” followed a group of scientists at an undisclosed location in Los Alamos who were eager to build the first atomic bomb to help end World War II for good. They often worked long hours and missed many opportunities to spend time with their families who were usually kept in the dark about what the mostly male scientists were spending their days doing. Two teams of rival scientists were duking it out to see which project was going to end up being the first atomic bomb ever built for the United States. One group had all of the flash and praise from everyone, which forced them to build up fanfare for their project. The other group was filled with different misfits that no one really took too seriously and were simply there for courtesy. The group was run by Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) who was an often combative scientist that usually spoke when he should’ve wait just a little bit longer. He was so eager to get Robert Oppenheimer’s approval that he failed to wait the right time to provide some sound back-up to prove any of his claims to be able to build a bomb faster than the other team. Frank’s former mentor Glen Babbit (Daniel Stern) warned him to wait, but he failed to listen to his advice once again. Frank’s strong devotion to his work left very little time to spend with his devoted wife Liza (Olivia Williams) who had trouble fitting in with the other wives and the scientists, because they failed to see her as a wife and a scientist at the same time. She also had to contend with their daughter Callie (Alexia Fast) growing more and more frustrated with their life in Los Alamos daily. Frank also had to deal with a new arrival named Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) who was gifted scientist and family man that was quickly snatched up by Winter’s rival team in every way. Charlie and Frank respected each other on the surface, but they were both eager to be on the winning team no matter what. Charlie’s frustrated wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) wanted to leave Los Alamos and was able to get her husband to reveal classified information to her. Will she be able to keep it a secret for long or will she reveal too much?
In terms of questions, the show posed a few, but its a very well known fact that the Manhattan Project managed to accomplish their goal that ended WWII with a very swift impact. Hollywood attempted to profile the Manhattan Project in the 1989 film “Fat Man and Little Boy,” but the movie focused on mainly the politics and the moral implications. This show decided to reveal how the day-to-day stressors of living and working in such close quarters could fracture even the strongest of relationships. The series premiere also demonstrated how rampant paranoia was apparent after a case of foolishness led to a threat of espisonage for whoever was arrested. The episode also profiled the fear of the unknown as the wives blindly wondered what their husbands were truly working on. There was one scene towards the end of the episode where Brosnahan’s Abby almost revealed everything that her husband told her, but she came up with a white lie that her fellow wives were so eager to believe that they managed to overlook a lot of the flaws in her version of the truth. Brosnahan sold the scene convincingly as her expressions changed to reflect her reaction to everything that she was saying whether it was the truth or a lie. Her face went from shock to relief in a matter of seconds as she realized that her new friends believed her story. The premiere’s main flaw was that it seemed to have lacked a stronger focus on who the main characters were. After all that was said and done, it was evident that Zukerman’s Charlie and Hickey’s Frank were the show’s focal point because their characters were scientists and devoted family men struggling under the weight of their dual responsibilities. Hopefully, future episodes will further develop their potential friendship/rivalry in a way to help drive the overall tension of the story. The show will also need to find a way for the wives to have a stronger story going beyond being stuck at home waiting for their husbands to come home and tell them nothing about their day. An interesting possibility would be for Williams’ Liza and Brosnahan’s Abby to become best friends as a way to force their characters’ husbands into a awkward social situation. Now, that would be something worth seeing somewhere down the line.
As for breakout performances, Hickey, Zukerman and Williams led the pack as their characters either drove most of the premiere in one way or another. Hickey’s Frank proved to be a complicated character who took risks to be able to get the job done. He hid supposedly important evidence of one of his team members committing a crime in order to make sure that the work to build the bomb doesn’t get interrupted by anyone or anything. Hickey provided Frank with a darkly sarcastic tone that made him amusing to watch when he was on “The Big C,” but he also gave his character some demons to contend with as well. Hickey gave Frank a sense of urgency in everything that he did, but his strongest scene came when he deciding whether to turn one of his team mates into for episonage after he learned the truth. The scene allowed viewers to get a glimpse of how truly Frank feels about authority and how how it could get him into trouble when he kept evidence that made it look like he was guilty instead. Hickey and Williams had a comfortable rapport that allowed them to crack jokes with one another whenever a scene became too intense. Zukerman, on the other hand, had the challenging task of trying to portray the naive new guy who was eager to be a success that he might be overlooking the truth that’s right in front of him. He gave Charlie a naive swagger after he was persuaded to join Frank’s rival team as one of many scientists working to helping the bomb get built, but he also threw in a few looks of defeat after he realized that he was just the new guy on the totem pole in the lab. Williams also deserved an honorable mention for trying to add some substance to what could have been a limited role as the dutiful wife who sat on the sidelines while her character’s husband did all of the heavy lifting. She gave Liza some grit as she showcased that she was more than a simple housewife with little to say or do. Williams’ strongest scene was when Liza confronted Frank about breaking his promise to never lie to her face. She persuaded Frank and viewers that Liza and Frank were characters worth watching no matter what. Only time will tell if that’s still the case by the end of the season.
“Manhattan” premiered on July 27th and airs Sundays at 10:00 PM on WGN America.
Verdict: The show that profiled a part of history in a way that showcased the implications for everyone involved in the Manhattan Project and the long ranging consequences of building a nuclear bomb in a very controlled environment.
TV Score: 3 out of 5 stars
1 Star (Mediocre)
2 Stars (Averagely Entertaining)
3 Stars (Decent Enough to Pass Muster)
4 Stars (Near Perfect)
5 Stars (Gold Standard)