THE OVERLOOKED

Manhattan

WGN’s historical drama about the first atom bomb foreshadows the perils of the nuclear age — and the joys of Rachel Brosnahan.
  • Olivia Williams, John Benjamin Hickey and Alexia Fast in Manhattan (WGN America)
    Olivia Williams, John Benjamin Hickey and Alexia Fast in Manhattan (WGN America)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart catches you up on the shows you missed with carefully curated selections you can enjoy in a week or less.

    Manhattan
    Season 2, episodes 6–10
    Watch on Hulu

    There’s a scene midway through the first season of Manhattan where atomic scientist Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) and his daughter Callie (Alexia Fast) are enjoying a rare moment of peace. Frank works on the Manhattan Project and comes home every night to his family and their unattractive clapboard house in literally the middle of nowhere. You don’t have to be a screenwriter to imagine what might be going through the head of a teenager who’s been pulled out of her elite high school and dragged to rural New Mexico sans explanation.

    Frank can certainly imagine. But he also knows Callie is old enough to understand duty, that if this wasn’t of national importance her father wouldn’t have agreed to come and live under martial law with thousands of other scientists and their families. Still, as he and she stare wistfully into the desert night, Frank feels the need to assure her.

    “This isn’t our neighborhood, Callie,” he says. “It’s all just cheap plaster and wood. In a couple of years we’ll be back at Princeton and this will all be Indian land. Like it never happened.”

    That was what I thought had happened to the ephemeral Manhattan. I’d learned about the race to build the atom bomb in school. But I just assumed the whole movie-set city had been flattened and carted off after the war.

    And then my father started sending letters from there.

    Daddy had taken a summer contract with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, built on the very site where the free world’s best and brightest once strived mightily to develop an existential threat to humanity before Hitler did. For fifteen summers he returned either to Los Alamos or Hanford, the site in Washington State that made the plutonium that gave the bomb its apocalyptic force.

    About his work Daddy was almost as tight-lipped as Frank Winter was with his kid. (He didn’t need to be, that’s just the way he was.) Only after my father died could I appreciate what a healing balm Los Alamos had been to him. Divorced from my mom, stuck at a college teaching science to non-majors, he had taken those government contracts less for the money than for the intellectual stimulation, professional citations and camaraderie that were missing in his life.

    John Benjamin Hickey in <i>Manhattan</i> (WGN America)

    John Benjamin Hickey in Manhattan (WGN America)

    I mention my father because what I now know about his time in Los Alamos has helped satisfy my one lingering concern about “Manhattan,” a show I can’t otherwise recommend too highly.

    Unusual among TV dramas, Manhattan attracted quite a bit of attention from scientific bloggers, especially during its first season on WGN America. In fact-checking the show, they tsk-tsk’d the writers for overdramatizing some of the dangers and tensions during the twenty-three months from inception to the first atomic blast.

    Perhaps the most glaring problem with the show’s first season was that so much of the drama revolved around a rivalry between two competing bomb development teams, including one led by our man Frank Winter. Besides being the weakest storyline of the first season, in real life the alleged rivalry never happened. All research “was discussed quite openly in the colloquia that we held one evening a week,” as one physicist at Los Alamos later recalled. And why, with so much at stake, would you discourage teams from fraternizing? As another scientist, Leona Marshall Libby, recalled, there was “a persistent and ever-present fear … that the Germans were ahead of us.”

    For this and other reasons relating to the show’s relatively slow gestation, I’d start with season 2 of Manhattan, either at episode 1 or episode 6. You can always watch earlier episodes later on, with little fear of spoilage.

    All historical dramas take liberties with real life. (For that matter so do documentaries, a discussion for another time.) And other than the imaginary bake-off, the factual embroidery on “Manhattan” is easy to take. Like the ongoing storyline about secrets leaking out of Los Alamos. Frank Winter is arrested not once but twice for suspected espionage and his bedroom closet is bugged.

    In reality, the real problem for scientists and their families was the overbearing presence of military police and security agents. Spying, though, was a genuine concern after the war, when Klaus Fuchs (who worked at Los Alamos) and Julius Rosenberg leaked atomic secrets to the Soviets.

    Likewise with the drama surrounding potential environmental dangers. As the Atomic Heritage blog succinctly put it, “The popular myths that the air, water and land of the Los Alamos laboratory were significantly contaminated by radioactivity seem to have infiltrated the plotline.”

    This is where the story of my father proved useful in my thinking about the show’s historical exaggerations. Daddy, it turns out, did much of his contract work at Los Alamos and Hanford on safety. We’re talking worst-case scenarios here. What would they look like, and how should staff at each facility respond if something unexpectedly horrible happened?

    So yes, Manhattan is a show about 1940s America — but it’s airing 70 years later, after a Cold War, three major reactor meltdowns, and the rise of loose nukes and rogue nations. You might say the show was doing some historical foreshadowing about the world after “Manhattan.”

    Equally compelling are the show’s acts of historical revisionism, including the presence of women, African-Americans and American Indians who were much more than part of the scenery. Above all, though, the human drama picked up momentum as the show went along.

    “The first season improved the more it sketched in the supporting players – Helen and Abby in particular turned out to be fascinating,” wrote Alan Sepinwall, who perceptively identified the future TV star in Rachel Brosnahan, playing the bored and bicurious scientist’s wife Abby Isaacs.

    Rachel Brosnahan and Carole Weyers in <i>Manhattan</i> (WGN America)

    Rachel Brosnahan and Carole Weyers in Manhattan (WGN America)

    Manhattan reminded Vox’s Todd Van der Werff “of many of the best dramas of the '90s, without any true antiheroes but lots of characters who are morally compromised, with clearly established dramatic stakes and a firm sense of melodrama, but not one that stands in the way of intriguing experimentation.”

    This column, The Overlooked, is based on the idea that one cannot have too much Peak TV. But tell that to the WGN executives who made an expensive bet on Manhattan and a handful of other shows during the network’s three-year fling with original scripted dramas.

    Two seasons in, they pulled the plug on this show, citing a lack of ratings “momentum” (i.e., a lack of ratings). Fortunately WGN sold the reruns to Hulu. Otherwise, as Frank Winter might say, it would be like Manhattan never happened.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Rachel Brosnahan, Hulu, WGN America, Manhattan, John Benjamin Hickey