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Manhattan could do for the '40s what Mad Men did for the '60s

This isn't a show about the Manhattan Project. It's a show about America.

Everybody on Manhattan is just waiting for the bomb to blow.
Everybody on Manhattan is just waiting for the bomb to blow.
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.

What Manhattan creator Sam Shaw just told me knocked me back on my heels a little.



This doesn't happen often. I've talked to a lot of showrunners whose plans for their series are meant to surprise or at least intrigue me. I'm rarely enthralled. TV shows are giant, multifaceted beasts. Trying to figure out every single aspect of them is a fool's errand.

My standard line is this: Planning out too much of a TV series can be a problem, can hold you back when you need to make bold story moves that cut against the plan or accelerate it more quickly than you had initially planned.

But Shaw's plan for Manhattan, the WGN America series that goes behind the scenes of the Manhattan Project and returns Tuesday, October 13, at 9 pm Eastern, was something I probably should have seen coming and just didn't. And once I heard it, I was as excited to see this show finish out a full run as any on TV right now.

So what is Shaw's plan? In the interest of not spoiling any of you, let's cliffhanger this for now.

In its second season, Manhattan moves with quiet confidence

John Benjamin Hickey in Manhattan
John Benjamin Hickey stars as Frank Winters in Manhattan.
WGN America

In its first season, Manhattan grew from a well-directed small-town period drama into a surprisingly intense wartime espionage thriller. It reminded me of many of the best dramas of the '90s, without any true antiheroes but lots of characters who are morally compromised, with clearly established dramatic stakes and a firm sense of melodrama, but not one that stands in the way of intriguing experimentation. It had its growing pains, of course, but by its finale it had become one of my favorite watches of the week, compelling yet also somehow breezy.

Manhattan isn't quite yet the great show I know it's capable of being as season two begins, but it's a show that moves with the confidence of a series that knows it can be great. Sometimes that's half the struggle. Plenty of shows that eventually hit their full stride faked it for a while.

But the series is stronger and more fully realized through four episodes of season two than it was at a comparable point in season one. It picks up from a massive cliffhanger, which saw characters imprisoned, promoted, heartbroken, and tossed to the wind. When season two opens, some are working on the Manhattan Project, others are being held by the military, and still others are engaged in the complicated game of espionage being played between the US and several foreign nations.

The show is also growing bolder about its storytelling, taking leaps through time that hop between the very first atomic detonation in the history of planet Earth and 18 months earlier, when the whole project seems to be in danger of falling apart for any number of reasons. The premiere juggles a bunch of different mysteries, some of which we know the answer to (yeah, that atomic bomb is going to work), and some of which we have no idea about (just where one character has disappeared to). In both its use of big-picture and smaller, character-based mysteries and its time-hopping design, Manhattan resembles nothing less than Lost.

One of the things that most gives me confidence in the series is the way it seems to resemble an atomic chain reaction itself. The story started very small, with a few family units, then began blowing them up, as life in the secret-filled confines of Los Alamos, New Mexico, drove the characters to paranoid, slowly disintegrating distraction. But instead of sticking to Los Alamos, every choice Manhattan makes expands outward, to the point that the second season's first four episodes feature scenes taking place all over the country, and even Albert Einstein is briefly mentioned.

The beauty of this structure is how it replicates the central subject. Small things tear apart and careen outward into much, much larger explosions. There are things rumbling on the horizon that aren't just ominous. They're inevitable.

The series works to remind the audience of what's coming

William Petersen and Olivia Williams are at odds in this season of Manhattan.
WGN America

It would be incredibly easy for the show to lose track of itself in this massive superstructure. To orient both itself and the audience, then, as it bops around in time, it tracks the characters in relation not to the show's present day (which is in mid-1944 when season two begins) but to something that's coming: Hiroshima. No matter where the story goes in its timeline, onscreen text always reminds us of how far away that first bomb dropped on Japan is. It's a fixed point in time, and these characters can't avoid it. Indeed, they're working to create it.

Some of the series' players seem aware of what the world they're creating might amount to, none more so than head scientist Frank Winters, brilliantly played by underrated American treasure John Benjamin Hickey. Frank, who essentially sabotaged his standing within the project at season one's conclusion in order to keep it going, now finds himself subjected to a long series of mind games at the hand of the US government, forcing him to confront some of the realities of his project.

He's accompanied in that by his wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), who never would have let him go to Los Alamos if she knew he was constructing a doomsday weapon. Frank and Liza have one of the most interesting marriages on television, one that could feel ported in from 2015 were it not for the fact that Liza is simply expected, on some level, to be a good Los Alamos wife, even when she has no idea where her husband has been taken. They're an Etch-a-Sketch version of an equal partnership. Yes, in theory, they support each other, but the nature of his work means anything they have can be obliterated in an instant.

This notion trickles throughout the other characters, too, from closeted lesbian (if she even knew how to express that idea) Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) to her husband, Charlie (Ashley Zukerman), who seems to firmly believe he can simply negate the affair he had with a colleague through force of will. There are spies and rumors of spies. There's even a new character, a military man commandingly played by CSI vet William Petersen, who keeps one eye on the Soviet Union, because he knows what's coming next. Maybe he's read the script.

It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest. At all times, Manhattan wants you to know there's some sort of plan. The series' directors, led by West Wing veteran Thomas Schlamme, often keep the cameras pulled back so we can see multiple characters at once, the way their various permutations and relationships ping-pong off of each other in the enclosed spaces they're all forced to call home.

The series' Emmy-winning opening credits show the intricate design underlying everything from Los Alamos itself to a dance routine. It's all just reactions, equal and opposite, spinning around some sort of nucleus nobody dares name.

It's also a neat clue to just what the show is ultimately up to. This isn't just a show about the atomic bomb's creation and detonation — it's a show about the invention of modernity. Though the characters don't know it yet, the explosions they're creating in both their work and their private lives are going to ripple outward and invent the modern world, one in which the traditional boundaries that had defined life to that point have largely come tumbling down.

Because of the way neighboring houses loom over each other and those houses' paper-thin walls, there are no secrets in Los Alamos, and that idea might prove as revolutionary as the Atomic Age. Privacy is about to die, too.

Why I'm so excited about what Manhattan has to offer

The bomb on Manhattan
This bomb will explode at some point. Hitchcock might call that suspense. Maybe.
WGN America

Mild, speculative spoilers follow.

If anything, the frequent nods toward the onrush of Hiroshima in season two should indicate the central part of Shaw's idea for the show: The detonation of the atomic bomb isn't the show's climax.

"It's not a story that ends with the end of World War II at all. If anything, we thought about the event of those bombs being dropped as sort of a halfway point in our story," Shaw told me. "I don't want to call the show a morality play, because that sounds so snoozy, but maybe a morality thriller. But the after is, in a way, much more significant to us than the before."

The notion arises when I suggest that the series has a finite story to tell, that when Nagasaki has a nuclear bomb dropped on it, and the Japanese surrender, the series' story is effectively over. Shaw shakes his head rapidly at that idea. If he didn't seem so excited, I might think he was a little offended.

No, what Manhattan is about isn't building a bomb. It really is about building the modern world. Shaw points out to me that the earliest planned suburban communities in the US were modeled off Los Alamos, that the very nature of modern America was being constructed out in that desert in the early 1940s.

"One thing that was fascinating to me in reading and thinking about it is it was a town that was constructed to divert the attention of almost everyone who lived in that town away from a secret at the center of the town — a secret that was a practical, real secret, which is building a bomb, but also a great, existential secret, a horrifying thought, which is, Maybe we can wipe ourselves out," Shaw told me. "The suburbs and the bomb were these twins in the same womb."

This, of course, makes sense. You can't tell the story of making the deadliest weapon the world had known to that point, one that was actually used to reduce two cities and their populations to ash, without talking about the aftermath. You can't simply send these men and women into the path of great guilt and not have them figure out how to deal with that guilt.

And you can't deal with that without talking about the country as a whole. If you look at the art of the immediate post-World War II period, everything from It's a Wonderful Life to Leave It to Beaver, so much of it circles around the question of moral instruction, around the idea that winning the war was worth it, but it cost so very, very much. Thus, it was necessary for Americans to behave as if they were worthy of that sacrifice, to construct their lives in such a way that they would be exemplars for the whole human race.

"One of the great ironies of World War II is it really felt like this war in which the stakes were the country that we were and the values that we had. And we won, to the extent that anyone can be said to win a war, but we weren't the same when we came out on the other side of it," Shaw told me. "We hadn't really succeeded in preserving or protecting. One never really can, because nothing stays the same."

It didn't quite work that way. Humanity is messy. It doesn't do well without having frayed edges here and there. If anything excites me about Manhattan and convinces me it's a very, very good show on its way to greatness, it's that it's a show about how inventing one weapon allowed men to kill each other more efficiently, yes, but also about how that invention ended a long adolescence and forced a nation — and maybe a species — to start the painful process of taking responsibility, of growing up. It's not a show about men becoming monsters; it's a show about them becoming human at last.

Manhattan airs Tuesdays at 9 pm Eastern on WGN America. You can watch season one on Hulu.

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