Will these devoted, stressed-out scientists ever be able to design an atomic bomb? Manhattan, a Los Alamos–set drama from WGN of all places, knows that we know the answer is yes; the Manhattan Project fulfilled its mission, and the United States did indeed develop and deploy nuclear weapons. We’ve been to the destination, so Manhattan has to be all about the journey. Luckily, we have some good traveling companions.
Dramatizing the search for an idea is a tall task; the act of thinking is not very telegenic, and the gasp-and-snap “eureka!” moment is as overused as a gasp-and-lurch-while-waking-from-a-nightmare shot. (Unfortunately, Manhattan uses both.) There’s only so much clack-clacking of chalk and the shuddering sounds of blackboards being too-violently written on that any one show can support, and Manhattan maxes out its limit very early on, in a scene with our lead scientist (John Benjamin Hickey) frantically scribbling out formulas. But then the shot cuts to a little scorpion trapped under an overturned highball glass, and the noise of the chalkboard overlaps with the clinking of the creature’s claws, and we’ve veered from the brink of every movie about an academic back into the realm of the pretty-good network drama. That’s Manhattan over and over; no aversion whatsoever to cliché, but completely capable of moving beyond it. When a character says “I’m not most women,” I am legally obligated to say “oy,” out loud, as is a tradition passed down from my clunker-loathing ancestors. Luckily, said woman is someone who knows how to trade peyote for a hot plate, so it’s easy to forgive her laborious dialogue.
The pilot for Manhattan gets a prestige boost from director Thomas Schlamme (also an executive producer on the series), who’s among the world’s leading experts in how to make things on TV seem important. The guy made Studio 60 feel substantial! What’s tough on Manhattan is that things really are substantial, which means the show can find itself at a moment of dramatic excess very quickly. A throng of scientists argue about a process that will take about a year, and one suggests that his method could take a week less. Is one week really that big a deal? a lackey wonders. “Somewhere in Germany, Hitler’s got a town just like this one, full of scientists hungrier than you. That week we save could be the week that matters,” shouts the frustrated team leader. It’s so overwrought — but then, how much less wroughtness would make sense? These people are literally building atomic bombs to stop Hitler in an attempt to save their world. It’s a tough balancing act to acknowledge the overwhelming stakes of that idea and still try to tell some domestic, person-to-person–level stories. “Have you figured out how to save the world yet?” “No, boss, but I think my wife is unhappy!”
And yet that’s what Manhattan is going for, and it often succeeds, particularly in the second episode, as the emotional, personal side of things starts taking hold. (It is difficult to engender a state of Total Caring on the first episode of any show.) Sadly for history and science buffs, Robert Oppenheimer is the only real person depicted on the show — give me a glimpse of Richard Feynman! Come on! — but that frees up the writers to depict any number of particular crises, be they matrimonial, spiritual, professional, or otherwise. The activities of the isolated base itself provide an interesting backdrop, as does the ongoing conflict between the military and civilian operations; the scientists aren’t actually in the army, though there are plenty of military personnel and officials around. The secretiveness of the project is oppressive both for the people keeping the secrets and for those in the dark, particularly as depicted here the wives of the men working on “the gadget,” the secret term they use instead of bomb. Espionage and treason are constant threats. And test bombs go off enough that most people wear earplugs while trying to work. Whatever its shortcomings, Manhattan has given itself a tremendous amount of stories to work with, and it takes time to look at each of them, from the pressures of defeating Hitler to the frustrating lack of nylon stockings. Bombs away.