Period television: Manhattan

Every now and then I cover period films here on TMP. I also love discovering and watching new television series set in the past, so when I saw an article about WGN America’s latest original programming endeavor, the 1940s-set Manhattan, I had to check it out. This is WGN’s second original series to premiere, the first being Salem, which premiered in April and has been picked up for a second season.

A World War II-style propaganda poster created in promotion of Manhattan (Image via wgnamerica.com)
A World War II-style propaganda poster created in promotion of Manhattan – Image via wgnamerica.com

Manhattan premiered on July 27. Two episodes have aired so far, and the third airs tomorrow night. If you’re interested in giving it a watch, you can catch the show Sundays at 10 pm Eastern/9 central.

The Story

Manhattan tells the story of the development of the first atomic bomb: the Manhattan Project.

A gaggle of scientists have moved to an encampment in the desert of New Mexico. It is a small, make-shift town made up only of the scientists, their families, and a few New Mexico natives. The work of the scientists is top-secret, so their families don’t even know exactly why they’ve had to move to the desert and drastically change their lifestyles. They make the best of the situation, following the same daily routine they would in any other city, with the added frustration of the occasional dust storm.

The minds building the bomb are geniuses, but imperfect geniuses. They’ve all got flaws, they frequently butt heads… and they must navigate their hectic work environment under the watchful, often accusatory eye of the American government.

A great sense of tension has been built in both of the previously-aired episodes of Manhattan. The show’s action is not quickly paced, but the story is incredibly engrossing, with its blend of personal and professional dramas. The viewer witnesses the work going on in Los Alamos as well as the struggle of the families to adjust to a new environment, and to accept the secrecy that is so crucial to the scientists’ work.

 Each episode is peppered with powerful scenes, such as the interrogation of Sid Liao (Eddie Shin) in episode two, which pulls back the curtain on how quickly the U.S. government was willing to turn against someone who had dutifully worked for them, at the first hint of misconduct. In the vein of other period series like Mad Men, The Paradise and Downton Abbey, Manhattan is a slow-burning, character-driven drama.

Frank and Charlie (Image via wgnamerica.com)
Frank (John Benjamin Hickey) and Charlie (Ashley Zukerman) – Image via wgnamerica.com

Cast and Characters

John Benjamin Hickey as Frank Winter is my favorite character in the series so far. He leads one of the teams working to design the bomb. He’s a harsh man who seems to isolate himself from everyone, an isolation which has only become more severe since he must keep the nature of his work secret from his wife, Liza. (More on her in a minute!) His character also seems to have some internal demons and moral conflict about the bomb, which materialize in the form of nightmares.

Sid Liao (Eddie Shin) is another character that brings a fascinating element to the story, as he’s targeted on suspicion of espionage from the first episode.

To the show’s benefit, Hickey and Shin get a lot of screen time in the first two episodes, with Shin’s espionage storyline becoming particularly explosive by the end of episode two. (And that’s all I can say without spoiling!)

The show has a lot of interesting and varied female characters, too, which is something that television can always use more of.

Liza Winter, Frank’s wife (portrayed by Olivia Williams), has a PhD in Botany. She keeps herself occupied with botanical research, but Frank’s secrecy and the unwillingness of the other wives to accept her (due to her higher education) are taking a toll on her quality of life.

Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) is the new girl in town, her husband Charlie (Ashley Zukerman) having just been hired on. She’s very social and quickly finds a place for herself in Los Alamos, but she is also a bit naive and struggles to adjust to the unique challenges and social structure of her new community.

Though she hasn’t had a ton of screen time so far, I’m also excited to see where they take the character of Helen (Katja Herbers), the only woman on Frank’s team of scientists.

Manhattan's crew has built sets full of cool 1940s props. (Image via wgnamerica.com)
Manhattan‘s crew has built sets full of cool 1940s props – Image via wgnamerica.com

Visual Appeal & Period Accuracy

Manhattan doesn’t offer up a glitzy and glamorous portrayal of the 1940s. The sets are appropriately parched and dusty. The costumes are generally quite good as well, and there are a lot of cool period-appropriate props used, including large propaganda posters. A few pop culture references are even snuck in. (During the second episode, a play of The Wizard of Oz is performed on the base and two of the characters briefly talk about the film/Judy Garland afterwards.)

As another visual bonus which has nothing to do with period accuracy, there are some very cleverly, artistically shot scenes, such as Frank’s nightmares in the first episode.

The show seems interested in portraying the period and subject matter accurately, both visually and in content, though most of the characters are not based on real people. Bits and pieces are pulled from the stories of a lot of people who lived at Los Alamos to make up the plot lines of the central characters.

According to Showbiz Spy, the cast sometimes suggests storylines based on research at local history museums or discussions with people who lived in the area during the 1940s. The film is shot on location in New Mexico, at an old Army hospital which was saved from demolition and renovated by the show’s crew, so the cast and crew have immediate access to first-hand accounts of the experiences they’re portraying on screen.

While every single scene of the show may not be based in fact and some things are bound to be exaggerated for the sake of good TV, the cast and crew seem truly interested in preserving a part of history.

Liza and Frank - Image via wgnamerica.com
Liza (Olivia Williams) and Frank (John Benjamin Hickey) – Image via wgnamerica.com

Looking Forward

I’ve been incredibly impressed with Manhattan so far and have high hopes for the rest of the season. I’m excited to see where things go for the series’ characters, who have already in two episodes been established as well-worthy of having their stories told. Given the fact that this is only WGN’s second original series, I also have high hopes for the network. If WGN keeps creating quality programming like Manhattan, I can see it garnering much greater prestige and possibly even some award buzz in the future.

 

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4 thoughts on “Period television: Manhattan

    1. I consider him my favorite character so far not because I like him or agree with all of his actions, but because I think he’s interesting to watch. I usually gravitate toward flawed characters because they have complex, engaging stories to tell. Same reason I love The Swede on Hell on Wheels. Thanks for reading/commenting!

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