It’s become a sort of adage of a sort: there’s a very real price for these freedoms we Americans enjoy. And nowhere else is the hypocritical crisis at the center of that struggle made plain than World War II. Once we created the nuclear bomb everything changed. The stakes were raised not just in warfare, but the future of the human race itself. There’s plenty about atomic warfare that would love to be forgotten, but the philosophical issues at the heart of the creation of the atomic bomb come to riveting life in WGN America’s latest, Manhattan. This is television you’d be remiss to miss, my friends (and random Internet strangers).
Now, we’re well aware that we (read: your loving author here) can be prone to a bit of hyperbole, but if the first two episodes of Manhattan are any indication, this is going to be one of those shows that captivates audiences with a quickness and quickly become must-see television of the most complicated order.
Complicated because of what is at its heart: the familial and personal effect such a situation has on a person. And The Manhattan Project is many-fold, considering it is where the nuclear bomb was conceived. Starring John Benjamin Hickey as brilliant and emotionally addled scientist Frank Winter and his truly motley crew of intelligent science weirdos — including Marv from Home Alone (Daniel Stern), Cal Chapman from Orange is the New Black (Michael Chernus) and Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) just to name a few — the story behind the drama is as gripping as the acting at the forefront.
In Manhattan there are two, essentially warring, factions of scientists. Winter’s crew (the farm team) and Dr. Reed Akley’s (David Harbour) New York Yankees; each one working on their iteration of the atomic bomb. On Akley’s team is new recruit Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman) and his morality in the face of the army Kool-Aid filled with dreams of heroics and a perfect-outcome scenario.
Families the country over made their way to a small plot of land in Los Alamos, New Mexico that wasn’t technically a part of the United States. It was top secret — not even the wives of all these smartypants knew what was going on — and most of the people working there didn’t even know what they were working on. Between the government hand protecting the country’s interests, the scientists racing to create a havoc-wrecking “gadget” that would allegedly ensure said interests, and the families thrust into this ramshackle world, tensions are inherent and complicated.
Hickey’s performance is riveting stuff, and he embodies the complicated nature of what’s at play in this race. “If it works — and it’s going to work — it’s going to be more destructive than all the bombs in all the world combined,” Winter states at one point. “The world will be united in peace … or it will burn to the ground. Whoever builds it first, that’s the endgame. So it has to be us, whatever it costs.”
But what’s great is that this isn’t JUST a show about science and the [mostly] men who created it, it’s about the families affected by the great weight of such an enormous undertaking. Though they’re oft-underestimated by the world around them (hey: it is the 1940s), the women of Manhattan are equally as riveting and intelligent. Olivia Williams stars as Mrs. Winter (Liza), and Rachel Posner of House of Cards fame (a/k/a Rachel Brosnahan) is the lucky Mrs. Abby Isaacs — and both women are, without giving too much away, forces to be reckoned with themselves when it comes to the emotional resonance of such a heavy, loaded environment.
With a score from the unendingly ethereal, esoteric, and atmospheric duo that are Jónsi & Alex (y’know, the guys behind Sigur Rós?), the fringes of the unknown are brought to life with an electric wash of technicolor vividness. The colors, the ambiance, the period ephemera, the emotional resonance — all of it comes together thanks to the hard work of series creators Sam Shaw (who previously worked on last year’s best new show, Masters of Sex) and Thomas Schlamme, director from The West Wing and inventor of the now-signature walk-n-talk.
So: have you finally checked to see if you get WGN America yet? Manhattan premieres on July 27th, so the time to do that is now.