WGN America's Manhattan ends its first season Sunday night, and it's grown from a promising little period drama into a seriously addicting show with a deep bench of great characters and a fascinating setting: the ramshackle town constructed near Los Alamos, New Mexico, that built the world's first atomic bomb in the 1940s.
The series follows two teams of scientists struggling to build the world's first atomic bomb, and though it turns the process of scientific discovery into something exciting and immediate, it's about so much more than just that. It's about what it meant to live in this tiny, secretive place. It's about the strain that place put on relationships. And it's about the complicated behind-the-scenes maneuvering necessary to make sure the bomb worked — and didn't blow up in the scientists' faces.
Given the minuscule ratings, it would seem not many people were even aware Manhattan existed. But WGN has given the show a second season — perhaps in hopes that good buzz will lead to binge-watchers checking out the show before season two premieres next year. If you didn't watch the show, you're in luck. This is the kind of series that rewards a dedicated binge, and its entire run is available to Hulu Plus subscribers, as well as for purchase on iTunes and Amazon.
Check out these five great reasons to add Manhattan to your list of shows to catch up on. And if you're interested in the history of the Manhattan Project, check out our interview with series creator Sam Shaw, who told us five crazy things he learned in researching the show.
1) This first season builds magnificently
There will be times in the first half of this season when you will wonder if anything is ever going to happen, or if this is just going to be a show where things seem like they're about to happen, before dissipating in a sea of plaintive stares and yearning music.
But give Manhattan time. Once it reaches the season's halfway point, things start to lock into place, characters reveal important secrets, and storylines begin colliding with each other in earnest. The season's final three episodes are basically an unending cascade of major, major revelations, which turn everything you know about certain characters on its ear — then flip it over onto the other ear minutes later. The initial time you invest into this one pays off wonderfully.
2) The cast features no dead weight
The cast of Manhattan is so deep that even the obligatory teenage character who has storylines about teenager things is played by a terrific young actress (Alexia Fast).
But the heart of the show comes from the people working in the lab to build the bomb, and the characters are played by actors who range from the very familiar (Daniel Stern, probably best known for Home Alone and The Wonder Years) to the somewhat familiar (John Benjamin Hickey, whom you will recognize but might not be able to place immediately) to the completely unknown (Katja Herbers). Everybody here is cast perfectly, and the ensemble gels almost immediately into a fearsome unit.
3) Even the storylines you think are going to be boring end up being interesting
By far the iffiest element of Manhattan for much of its first season is Olivia Williams's role as a frustrated physicist's wife, forced to put her career as a botanist on hold to move out to the middle of the desert and support her husband's career. It seems like it will be just another story about a thankless wife, who's mostly there to hold back her husband from doing the super awesome science stuff we want to see him doing. The thankless wife being a cable drama trope that needs to end already, it seems easy to tune this out.
But that would be a mistake. Manhattan cleverly understands exactly how we're going to perceive Williams's character. And even better, the character herself seems aware she's become trapped in this sort of storyline and immediately starts rebelling against it. A show that can anticipate its audience's criticisms and adjust to them on the fly is a show worth following indeed.
4) It's a small-town show. It's a romance. It's a sci-fi show. It's a spy series.
It's all of those things and more. Any given episode of Manhattan can feature quirky small-town dynamics, long-anticipated kissing, deep ruminations on the nature of physics, or stories where paranoid government agents find themselves trying to root out traitors in their very midst.
It's a heady cocktail of elements that threatens to fizz over the edges of the glass several times throughout the season but never quite does. The balancing act is seriously impressive.
5) It's about the way we were — and the way we live today
The village of secrets that Manhattan takes as its setting is, of course, a product of its time. People fret about the end of World War II, and they talk about contemporary cultural references. The show is always thinking about what it means to not be a white guy in its world, too. What does it mean to be a woman, or a black person, or someone who's gay? Even in throwaway scenes, the show is considering these questions and the differences between the 1940s and right now.
But this is also a show about the world we live in today. It's a show set in a world where the questions of what you're willing to sacrifice for peace and security are ever present, and it's a show set in a world with no privacy. Nothing stays secret for long in this little town, even though it's a town literally built on keeping the biggest secret of them all. And that means the show becomes one about the management of information, about what we choose to make public and what we try to keep to ourselves — and just how hard that is to maintain when everybody is forced to share such a tiny space together. That might be a small town here and the world of social media to us, but the principle remains roughly the same. What do you keep for just yourself, when the world is conspiring to open you up like a book and read every page?
There are numerous other reasons to watch Manhattan — and I haven't even mentioned how the season finale will have you antsy for next year — but those five should be enough to get you started. Go and check it out. You'll be glad you did.
Manhattan airs Sunday night at 10 p.m. Eastern on WGN America. The complete series is available on Hulu Plus, as well as for digital purchase on iTunes and Amazon.