Geniuses aren't like you and me. It's not just that they know more, but that they see the world differently from us, or even from each other. You don't come up with the idea of splitting the atom, let alone the means to do it, if your thoughts bounce around your skull in the same pattern that someone else might use to build a house or calculate their taxes. TV has understood this, but has tended, particularly of late, to present all geniuses in a one autism spectrum disorder fits all package, when in fact there's far more variety and volatility even among the most wicked smart.
“Manhattan,” the excellent drama about the men and women who built the world's first atomic bomb, returns to WGN America tonight at 9, and continues to understand genius's many different flavors. Once again, it captures the enormous creative possibilities that come from putting a few hundred great brains together on one army base in the middle of the New Mexico desert, but also the problems that arise, especially when they're being supervised by a military-industrial complex that barely understands their new charges, and trusts them even less.
In a promising first season, “Manhattan” was at its best when the geniuses were being constrained, misinterpreted, or just plain tortured by their many government keepers. The series' chief director is Emmy-winning “West Wing” alum Thomas Schlamme, and he very smartly brought in his old friend Richard Schiff to play a government spook whose job it is to ferret out any signs that one of the physicists – many of whom had ties to organizations and even countries that are no longer acceptable in the race to beat the Axis powers – is giving information to the Germans, or (in some ways worse) the Soviets. It wasn't a big role, but a memorable one, and tonight's second season premiere, directed by Schlamme and written by “Manhattan” creator Sam Shaw, gives Schiff's character a full name and backstory that explains exactly why he's so unwilling to take the scientists' protestations of loyalty to America and apple pie at face value.
When it began, “Manhattan” was, like another period cable drama that returns this week, “The Knick,” more striking for its visual style (Schlamme and his fellow directors worked wonders with the dust and intense sunlight of the show's New Mexico location) than for its plotting and characterization. There was a rivalry between two different groups of physicists, one led by John Benjamin Hickey's weather-beaten iconoclast Fran Winter, the other featuring Ashley Zukerman's deceptively boyish prodigy Charlie Isaacs. Frank's wife Liza (Olivia Williams), a scientist herself, at first seemed like she was merely frustrated being asked to play Army bride in the middle of nowhere, but it turned out she suffered severe mental health issues that the isolation and secrecy of her new life only exacerbated. Charlie's wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) had an affair with another woman on the base, and there were jealousies and romantic entanglements involving the various members of Frank's team, including lone female physicist Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), resentful Brit scientist Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd), gregarious but clumsy Fritz (Michael Chernus), and the aptly-named Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham), who was eventually revealed to be the mole that Schiff's spy hunter has been searching for.
Frank, prideful but also pragmatic, was (and is) well played by Hickey, but not a strong enough character to carry this big ensemble. (He's sort of this show's Nucky Thompson: tying everything together, and capable of outstanding moments, but at times feeling like a necessary evil to get to the more colorful folks around him.) The first season improved the more it sketched in the supporting players – Helen and Abby in particular turned out to be fascinating in the ways each of them tried to navigate a male-dominated environment from very different positions – and the more it played up the way that Charlie, underneath his clean cut, aw shucks demeanor, was a genius even among geniuses, and increasingly tired of hiding that just to fit in.
There are some notable changes this season, with several of last year's regulars gone, though Daniel Stern's beard makes a cameo in episode three. In their place is William Petersen (in his first regular TV role since leaving “CSI”) as Col. Emmett Darrow, the new ranking officer on the base, and the new focal point of the paranoia that permeates every corner of these characters' lives, for as long as they're trying to build a weapon that will kill thousands upon thousands, but hopefully spare many more in the process. Last season, Mark Moses' Alden Cox was never much of an authority figure, and bringing in Petersen – whose own best roles have walked the knife edge between genius and insanity – allows “Manhattan” to up the sense of institutional madness, which is where it shines most brightly.
The new season (I've seen the first four episodes) also features memorable guest roles for Justin Kirk as a mystery man who encounters Frank shortly after Frank's exile from the project, Mamie Gummer as a newcomer to the base who shows an interest in Meeks, Griffin Dunn as a reporter sniffing around what the Army has all these brainiacs working on, and Neve Campbell as the wife of Manhattan Project chief Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London) – who is himself perhaps the smartest and/or craziest of them all.
At one point in the new season, a character begins to feel disillusioned about their mission, and all the absurd restrictions the Army has placed on their lives for the duration, complaining, “It's all a game!”
The problem is that the game will have enormous real-life consequences for both the winning and losing sides, and if that means pushing a bunch of pencil necks to their physical and emotional breaking point, and victimizing them with witch hunts along the way, then that's what the military will do here.
This is a very smart show about incredibly smart people, and it's only gotten better as it's gone along.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com