So WGN is making a concentrated effort to be considered a real network instead of just that one that shows Cubs games in the afternoon and some decent reruns late at night. First they launched Salem at the start of the summer, which was the sort of cheesy summer fare they needed to get their foot in the door. Manhattan represents their attempt to go serious, to play on the same field with AMC and the likes. And to my complete astonishment, they succeeded. The first episode at least is excellent, getting you straight into a very bizarre and tiny little world that is nonetheless bulging with deep themes.
It’s got a fantastic cast. Harry Lloyd is there lurking in the background a bit, so they should pump his role up more, even if they don’t have him say sister-of-mine at some point. John Benjamin Hickey is fantastic as the lead of our little band of scientists. Grim and determined, and worn so thin by the stress he’s almost transparent. Olivia Williams shines as his wife, a fellow PhD (though of botany) who gave up everything because he believes that this project matters, even though he can’t tell her one word of what they’re doing.
It succeeds at setting up a world that feels completely real all while being filled with the constant details of just how alien this place is compared to our world, or even the normal world at the time. There are the wives and families there, forbidden from leaving until the war ends, their mail read and returned with annotations. There’s the weird tension with the native Americans brought in to be domestic workers since they can’t speak English. Lice epidemics leaving the children shaved like inmates. The weird, dingy, almost post-apocalyptic landscape they all inhabit, cobbled together in the desert. Any one of the details would be a sideplot in an episode in a lesser show, but this show is so far aiming quite a bit higher.
There’s a nuance to the writing that I didn’t expect. The wife who lies about what her husband told her about the project, and the ever so subtle look on the faces of the others that at the superficial level is excited to hear what she is saying, but underneath betrays that they know she’s lying and they approve. There are layers of acting and writing going on here that are beautiful to watch.
The showrunners have said that they’re aiming for truth in spirit, and not focusing too terribly on historical accuracy. And I think that’s a fair choice at this point in history. We’ve had a thousand books and documentaries, and so long as a story holds its first loyalty to the spirit of the truth, I’m won’t be that history major. Truth be told, they’ve stuck closely enough to the history that I’m satisfied anyway, even if there are made up characters. Though given the huge role that Oppenheimer played in the project, it’s odd that they’ve made him sort of a distant figure who comes and goes rather than part of the action. But he’s mysterious and interesting enough of a character on the show that the effect is one of generating intrigue rather than a scramble to Wikipedia.
In any case, the show is one of those in the interesting position of having an audience that already knows the end to the story. Spoiler alert: we build an atomic bomb. And if you’re familiar with the Manhattan Project even at a cursory level, you already know by the end of the first episode which of the competing groups has the right answer to the posed problem.
So the show focuses instead on setting up a nice contrast between the sort of all star group, and the fringe group on the side who nobody believes in, etc. Naturally it makes the latter our protagonists, while making the golden boys (who actually refer to themselves as the New York Yankees of the camp, so you know to hate them right off) the nefarious and arrogant sorts we root against. And we know that the underdogs are the ones that are right in the end, not just from story logic but from history. The Thin Man plan doesn’t work historically, and the implosion device is the winner in the end (and still is, it’s still the basic way that atomic bombs are built). They bring in a super smart kid to join the overdogs. You just know that he’s going to end up on the side of the angels.
The point is, that the story cannot have any real tension over the big events, or even most of the medium ones. A lesser show would pretend that there is drama over those things. A moderately better show would acknowledge it, and then make it all day-in-the-life sort of stories, hitting the viewers with how strange and alien a time and place this was. A show that just might have the potential to be great instead uses the setting as a vehicle for arguing the ethics and philosophy of what was happening.
With not a drop of bloodshed or even the threat of it, this is a dark show, displaying a creeping darkness that arises because of the sheer stakes of what they’re doing. A shaken scientist telling the story of the Golem of Prague. Another acidly retorting that there are no Jews left in Prague. Questioning what will the next war be? This time and place in history is special, a unique and fixed point, in which the greatest minds of a generation worked to create a horrific weapon while suffering moral crises as deep as any that men have ever struggled with. Scientists are soldiers in this war, they say on occasion, they take on the guilt here of an entire civilization. You can’t bottle up knowledge, so what’s essential is that we, the nominal forces of good, get there first. We will make unimaginable destruction reality, because the thought of someone else being the first to seize it is truly unimaginable.
This might very well be the show that puts WGN fully on the map as a network to be reckoned with.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.