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Mad Men meets nuclear war on WGN America's new series Manhattan

The cast of Manhattan
The cast of Manhattan
WGN America
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

WGN America's new series Manhattan is the result of an unlikely attempt to cross-pollinate Lost with Mad Men, only the audience knows the answer to almost every mystery on the show is "the atomic bomb."

On the Lost side of things, Manhattan is basically a mystery show, like that one. Episodes are constructed so that characters are keeping secrets from each other (and occasionally the audience), and the show's larger plot is built around the deeper mystery of what this strange base in the middle of the desert is up to. But because everybody watching will have some rough idea of what the Manhattan Project was all about, it makes the mystery show aspects wrinkle the brain in a very different way. This is a conspiracy show in reverse, where the aims are known to the audience but the methods aren't always.

Manhattan is a solid show, not a great one. But it marks a substantial step forward for WGN America, a network that is just getting into the scripted drama game with the campily terrible Salem (a show that seems to retroactively forgive the residents of Salem, MA, for all those witch trials) and now this. And if Manhattan isn't yet the full package, it has enough elements worth sticking with to suggest it might find the full package someday.

Welcome to Nowhere

Roughly based on the true story of the construction of the first atomic bomb near Los Alamos, New Mexico, Manhattan is based on fictional characters but follows the basic outline of the bomb's design and assembly. In some ways, the series is a small-town series, but the town the characters live in isn't even a spot on the map. At one point in the second episode, one character tells another (in the middle of an interrogation) that technically, he isn't in the United States. He's in "nowhere, talking to no one."

The line and the idea are striking. What happens when you not only take a bunch of people off the map, but cause the map to swallow them whole? The best moments in Manhattan are moments when the tension between the desire for a normal life conflicts with the abnormal circumstances under which these people live. A woman tries to throw an Independence Day party. A young couple moves to town, hoping to improve its fortunes. People gossip and try to figure out what's going on, while only a handful of people know the entire picture.

When Manhattan struggles is at once when it's too familiar and too cryptic. In particular, it has trouble making its central character, the scientist Frank Winter (played by the great John Benjamin Hickey), work as something more than a collection of mysteries and clichés. He might seem gruff and difficult, but he's really fiercely devoted to his scrappy team of underdogs. He seems devoted and straightforward when we first see him with his wife, a botanist who's placed her career on hold to support Frank (played by Olivia Williams), but he harbors secrets in every part of his life. And so on.

The series can never quite pin down Frank, though Hickey does his level best to figure out how, but when it does, he's inevitably something familiar and rote. And here's where the Mad Men comes in. Leaving a character shrouded in mystery is a good way to build a compelling TV hero, but it's also an almost guaranteed way to disappoint the audience unless that character's back-story is as compelling as possible. The little glimpses we get of the "real" Frank fail this simple test, leaving Hickey flailing to find something stable to hang onto.

Our other main characters are Charlie and Abby Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman and Rachel Brosnahan), a couple who move to the base without quite knowing what Charlie has been called there to do. The series attempts to build tension by placing Charlie on the team that rivals Frank's (and seems to be in the lead), but it can never quite escape the fact that Charlie is another fairly typical, trite character, while Abby is a standard riff on the "stir-crazy wife" type who's par for the course in these sorts of series. Frank and his scrappy underdogs will inevitably prevail. It's just a matter of waiting.

The shape of things to come

And yet Manhattan is a lot of fun when it gets out of its own way. Series creator Sam Shaw (previously of Masters of Sex) is really great at having his scientist characters talk about their work, and he doesn't really bother to explain to the audience what they're talking about. (He trusts that we know it will result in mushroom clouds.) Shaw also has an ear for fun dialogue that reveals just enough about characters while stopping short of revealing too much. Indeed, he seems to be better at using that dialogue to create intriguing supporting players than lead characters. (The best character here is a crotchety old scientist played by Daniel Stern with a thick, white Santa Claus beard.) Plus, he's great at using our knowledge of how the atomic bomb will change life on Earth against us. The scientists building it know how profound an effect it could have; everybody else is living in an age before the apocalypse.

And the series' lead director, Thomas Schlamme, does a terrific job of making the show look like a million bucks. There are shots and sequences in this show as well-directed as anything on TV, and Schlamme makes a great case for the primacy of the kind of classically inclined TV direction he pioneered on The West Wing. There's nothing wildly revolutionary here, but Schlamme's use of the basics keeps what could feel complex and confusing very clear and easy to follow. And when he gets a chance to unleash a more visually adventurous sequence, as in the opening of the pilot, he sinks his teeth into it with abandon.

Finally, ultimately, there's the simple fact that Manhattan suggests mysteries where we already know the answers. It's a thrillingly backward way of constructing a television show, and it gives sequences like, say, a young man delivering a mysterious package to the base a nice kick. We know the ultimate goals, but we don't always know the individual pieces that will add up to those goals. So many other shows spend too much time on the pieces, neglecting the whole that will make them feel retroactively satisfying. Manhattan knows its whole will change the face of life on Earth, which gives it more latitude to go searching for pieces that satisfy. It's not all of the way there yet, but it's further along than many other shows are at this point.

Created by: Sam Shaw
Starring: John Benjamin Hickey, Olivia Williams, Ashley Zukerman, Rachel Brosnahan, Daniel Stern
Debuts: Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern on WGN America
Two episodes watched for review

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