WGN America’s new World War II drama Manhattan delivers a strong cast, a strong story, and strong competition in the world of cable dramas.
Manhattan, which airs Sundays at 10pm on WGN America. It will also be available on Hulu after a three-day delay.
Manhattan is a (loosely) historical drama about the Manhattan Project—the top secret military mission to develop an atomic bomb. The action takes place at the military camp near Los Alamos, New Mexico. However, once families move in, there’s no moving out until the war is over. The story begins on July 2, 1943: get comfortable.
WGN America is swinging for the fences on this one. The show was created by Sam Shaw who wrote three episodes of Masters of Sex last season. Thomas Schlamme, prolific director from The West Wing, is also an EP as well as the director of the pilot. Tony Award-winning actor John Benjamin Hickey plays the role of lead scientist Frank Winter. Jónsi & Alex, a side project of Sigur Rós, are in charge of music.
Who is Manhattan For?
Are you into historical/period drama? This is for you. If you are into military history and espionage, this is for you. What about people unable to escape their environment, such as Orange is the New Black or Under the Dome? Check and check. Also, if you like any parts of the pedigree, you should be satisfied with the pilot.
The pilot is quite impressive. The period elements are there, but are presented in a matter-of-fact way. Mad Men and AMC’s other programs can get a little too wink-wink with references to the era it is depicting, but Manhattan establishes its setting and moves on. The challenge with a story based on actual historic events is that the audience already knows how the story will ultimately resolve itself, so new angles have to be discovered/created. The elements I enjoyed the most were the civilians reacting to life in what is essentially a prison. The wives know secrets and have nothing to do but share those secrets with each other to try to figure out what the heck their husbands are doing (and what misinformation has been dropped). Meanwhile, the kids in the town have to tone down their ambitions, as their hopes and dreams may conflict with what the Army considers a security risk. Add in the military and espionage elements and you have quite a bit of tension in an already tense situation.
What Doesn’t Work
The ensemble for Manhattan is quite large and it will take a few episode to keep track of who’s who, who works for whom, and who has screwed over whom. And this is before the inevitable soap opera elements get added to the mix.
If the full run of Manhattan is as strong as the pilot, WGN America may have found the show that will replace Mad Men in the zeitgeist. You should absolutely check out this show.