TV Review: ‘Manhattan’

manhattan TV Review

Like a lot of networks as they move into original series, Tribune’s WGN America doesn’t yet seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up. So the channel is following the witchy (but not terribly bewitching) “Salem” with “Manhattan,” a dense ensemble drama devoted to the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, which devised the first nuclear bombs. Opening, as the on-air script informs us, “766 days before Hiroshima,” the show establishes plenty of room to operate. But the program’s dense, grim nature augurs a rather narrow appeal, leaving a different sort of cloud hanging over its prospects.

Tellingly, the cast of “Manhattan” is listed in alphabetical order, suggesting a level of equality that’s both accurate and somewhat confining. Despite boasting some fine actors, without a central lead, the project tends to careen around like loose ions, lacking a stabilizing core.

The driving focus, naturally, is on the race to produce a weapon devastating enough to end WWII, which is what motivates Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), who leads one of the competing teams, and never stops reminding his charges about the steady increase in combat casualties. His brilliance, however, is offset by the unproven nature of his work and his bull-in-a-china-shop demeanor — the lack of social graces and scientific genius being a not-unusual combination.

The introduction to all of this comes through Charlie (Ashley Zukerman), a new arrival who doesn’t know what he’s been enlisted to produce. Like the other scientists, he must lie to his spouse (Rachel Brosnahan), who quickly befriends Winter’s wife (Olivia Williams, especially good), as the families must survive in what amounts to ramshackle barracks in the Los Alamos desert.

While Charlie doesn’t wind up working for Winter, everyone is in the uncomfortable position of trying to impress Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London), who, at least initially, is seen about as often as the President was supposed to be at first in “The West Wing” — an occasional presence spoken of in hushed, reverent tones.

Written by Sam Shaw and directed by Thomas Schlamme (yes, a “West Wing” alum), “Manhattan” earns points for being serious and ambitious, while creating a strong sense of atmosphere and place in the isolation — and paranoia — in which the families must exist. The promising cast includes Daniel Stern as Winter’s more politically astute colleague and Mark Moses as the facility’s military overseer.

Taking all those factors into account in decidedly unscientific fashion, “Manhattan” certainly isn’t a bomb creatively speaking, nor is it yet the bomb, in latter-day vernacular. And perhaps appropriately, as admirable as some of its elements are, what’s missing in the opening hours is the elusive spark necessary to make them genuinely pop.

TV Review: 'Manhattan'

(Series; WGN America, Sun. July 27, 9 p.m. ET)

Production

Filmed in New Mexico by Lionsgate Television, Skydance Television and Tribune Studios.

Crew

Executive producers, Sam Shaw, Thomas Schlamme, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Marcy Ross, Dustin Thomason; producers, Julie Dejoie, Iain Paterson; director, Schlamme; writer, Shaw; camera, John Lindley; production designer, Ruth Ammon; editor, Tad Dennis; music, Jonsi Birgisson, Alex Somers; casting, Jeanie Bacharach. 60 MIN.

Cast

Rachel Brosnahan, Michael Chernus, Christopher Denham, Alexia Fast, Katja Herbers, John Benjamin Hickey, Harry Lloyd, Eddie Shin, Daniel Stern, Olivia Williams, Ashley Zukerman

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  1. MVE says:

    Great sow about an amazing time in the world’s history. We are loving it!

  2. steve Barb says:

    We (wife and I) just watched the first episode, not worth the wait. The story wasn’t slow and uninteresting. We didn’t make any connection with any of the characters. Even the cocktail party was a bore. For me, the worst was the background noise (we know it’s windy, but we don’t need an hour off wind sounds) or that horrible depressing musical sounds. This is the 40’s, an era of great music and big bands. The sounds were distracting at best and annoying for the most part. This is the same reason we stopped watching Salem.

  3. Bob says:

    Gee, what will WGN do without any token blacks in the cast? I see they had a Japanese traitor. Where there any Japanese working on the Manhattan project? I don’t think so. Anyway, with no tokens in the cast it will be the first show in a long time not to do so.

  4. Paul R crosby says:

    Thanks Wgn America…looks like you’ve got a hit on your hands!

  5. Anyone who has read a single book about what happened in this town knows that it is one of the most dramatic and eventful stories that could ever be told about America, and more importantly about the human race. Good job to WGN America for being the first to tap into this sadly overlooked gold mine.

  6. NHBill says:

    Complex dramas are best watched over a short period instead of dragged out week-to-week for months.
    Add the uncertainty of ratings success and it makes sense to wait until the show completes it’s run before committing to it.
    Unfortunately all this waiting impacts the ratings and the spiral begins.

  7. brandon says:

    Mad men was actually quite “boring” and had very few “hooks” to get us inspired other than some contrived ones early…so maybe this isn’t such a bad thing…

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