It seems period pieces are a dime a dozen in today’s crowded television landscape. With Boardwalk Empire-style speakeasies dotting metro-areas across the US and skinny, Madmen-esque black ties strutting up and down urban avenues, any opportunistic producer can throw a dart at an almanac and set out to kickstart a new decade-specific television trend. But a true period piece transcends its historical specificity and penetrates right into the heart of contemporary society, casting fresh light upon difficult questions with which we are often unable to grapple in our day-to-day lives. Count WGN America’s new original series, Manhattan, among the latter.
While at first glance, Manhattan is a straightforward 1940s throwback bedecked with Studebakers and wide-brimmed fedoras, its relevance to urgent 21st-century dilemmas simmers just below the surface. Following a team of scientists scrambling to finalize the design for an atomic bomb on a secretive military outpost in the New Mexican desert, Manhattan, it seems, is a series about heady ethical questions. This is wartime, and the personal freedom of the Manhattan Project scientists is secondary to the greater good of their mission. There is paranoia, secrecy, accusations of espionage, and the fundamental ethical quandary around which the series will undoubtedly orbit: must we sacrifice the few to save the many? In a post-Edward Snowden world, these are questions we should all be asking ourselves. Manhattan gently slaps us on the face and obliges us to confront them.
Lucky for those of us willing to go along for the ride, the series is shaping up to be a stylistic tour-de-force: looking, sounding and feeling more like serious cinematic fare than basic cable programming. The masterful cinematography brings a painterly aesthetic to the breathtaking southwestern landscapes, drawing out the crisp blues and harsh contrasts of the desert light, while not being afraid to plunge into the pitch-blackness of New Mexico nights. The interiors are moody and atmospheric, sketching out graceful silhouettes cast against the soft glow of distant tungsten lamps, or shutting off the lights all together and leaving us with lovers illuminated by nothing more than a flickering flame. The camera movements are elegant and justified, pushing along the story without calling attention to themselves or falling into self-indulgence. Indeed, with Manhattan we are in the presence of a highly sophisticated visual language.
But praise must also be showered upon the oft-overlooked sound department. The expressive sound design oscillates between lush diegetic sounds elaborated with great sensitivity, and the multi-layered, expressionistic inner worlds of the characters; rounded out with omnipresent period music and a tasteful, modern score that deepens the atmosphere with ambient harmonics.
Meanwhile, our protagonists are counterposed in a classical believer-vs-skeptic binary, allowing the writers to hash out their ethical and moral inquiry through the highly personalized, deeply human perspectives of our two leading men. The veteran scientist Frank Winter, played by John Benjamin Hickey, is a man driven as much by patriotism as his recurring nightmares of mass destruction. In his eyes, the bomb is inevitable, and it is only a question of who gets there first. Ashley Zuckerman’s Charlie Isaacs is the brilliant, baby-faced new kid on the block — a Jew who is deeply troubled by the task laid out in front of him and fears that atomic energy may turn out to be Golem of Jewish folklore who eventually turns on the very people he was created to protect.
Overall, Manhattan still has some kinks to be worked out, but the future is looking bright. Hopefully as the season progressed the actors will grow more confident in their roles and the writers will give a little more humanity to the hispanic maid/comic relief that does little more than say “I don’t speak English”… in Spanish (yes, it’s a pet peeve of mine). Either way, we can rest assured that series creator Sam Shaw has taken on this task with the utmost gravitas and an unending pool of good taste. Looking forward to what’s to come.