‘Manhattan’ Is Riveting, Complicated And Enlightening Television

The pilot episode of Manhattan — a drama from WGN about the Manhattan Project — is only 52 minutes long, but for me, it was a two-hour investment. Manhattan is such a fascinating depiction of a little-explored time in history that it’s hard to resist the urge to scurry off to Wikipedia to learn more, or to refresh yourself on the atomic bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki back in 1945, which killed — by some estimates — well over 200,000 civilians.

Two hundred thousand people! What were we thinking? How could we have ever justified the use of a bomb that not only killed that many people, but in many cases, burned them to death over the course of days or weeks? That seems unfathomable today, but in refreshing my memory of that part of history, I was reminded that it wasn’t simply a shortcut. That we didn’t drop the bomb as a show of power, or because we could, or simply because we knew (or thought we knew) it would end the war. We dropped those bombs because the deaths of 200,000 people was more palatable to the United States and President Harry Truman than the estimated 10-15 million casualties the United States and Japan would’ve suffered if the US had moved ahead with its Japan offensive as planned without the bomb.

We killed 200,000 people to save 10 million lives, and the decision to do that is part of what is at the crux of Manhattan, which explores the families who moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, a remote town whose very existence was classified. The men who moved there — many of the best scientific minds in the country at the time — had no idea what they were working on until they arrived, and even once they arrived, their wives weren’t allowed to know they were trying to build a nuclear bomb.

Manhattan explores that classified town and the families that lived there, as they contended with the secrets, with the urgency to build a bomb, with the potential threats (spies, leaks, etc.) both within and outside the Manhattan Project, and the gravity of what they were endeavoring to do: Build a weapon with the potential to wipe out entire cities of civilians. The stakes, obviously, were huge, and the pilot episode’s focus on an attempt to figure out how to build the bomb one week faster (than the year and a half planned) deftly illustrates just how high those stakes are.

We are talking about 200,000 dead people, and those the show is fictional, the casualties are not wrought by the bombs built are not.

Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey, The Big C) helps to lead Manhattan Project, which was being supervised by Robert Oppenheimer (the only actual historical figure from the series so far, and he’s a shadowy, creepy dude). Winter’s wife (Olivia Colman) has a Ph.D of her own, which makes her an outcast among the other housewives, but putting her career on hold so her husband can work on something of which she has no knowledge also creates considerable tension in their marriage. Abby Isaacs (Rachel Brosnahan, House of Cards) is a newbie, who comes with her wunderkind husband (Ashley Zukerman) and takes a leadership role among the wives. Daniel Stern plays a physicist and political liaison for the team, Michael Chernus (the goofy brother in Orange is the New Black), plays one of the scientists, and Harry Lloyd (Viserys Targaryen in Game of Thrones) is a brash, ambitious British scientist.

The strong cast is lead by showrunner and writer Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) and director/producer Thomas Schlamme (the other major creative force behind Sorkin’s years on The West Wing), who have assembled an ambitious television series. We ultimately know how Manhattan ends (kind of — the Manhattan Project continued to exist years after we dropped atomic bombs on Japan), but it’s fascinating to explore the thought processes behind the creation of the bomb. It’s also interesting to consider that so much of the work that went into the creation of the bomb — banks and banks of typists working long hours on mathematical calculations — could’ve been done in seconds on an iPhone today. But it’s also heartening to know that the fears some had in the opening episode of Manhattan — namely, that dropping atomic bombs wouldn’t necessarily stop after World War II — have not yet come to fruition, some 75 years later.

It’s difficult to judge an entire series based on only a pilot episode (see, e.g., Halt and Catch Fire), but WGN may really have something with Manhattan and if so, this could be the show that puts WGN on the map, not as the Superstation that used to run Chicago Cubs baseball games, but as a network with quality, prestige content. For those of you who have bailed on The Leftovers, Strain, and Halt & Catch Fire in the last couple of months, this could be your new 10 p.m. alternative. It has the potential to be the best of that bunch.

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