Manhattan: Season 1

| April 7, 2015

I’ve been meaning to watch this series for a while now since the entire first season is available on Hulu plus, and the previews they aired when it first premiered looked interesting.  Being offered a copy of the blu-ray to review was just the nudge I needed to get into this gripping and human drama about the invention of the atomic bomb during World War II.

Full disclosure: Manhattan is not a docudrama so much as it’s an historical fiction.  Most the characters that populate the series are fictitious and their actions, while contributing to actual historic events, are made up for dramatic effect.  This may put some people off the series, especially if you like historically based dramas that stick to the real events of a true story, but as someone who studies adaptation whenever possible, I can assure you that changes to the original story are inevitable, and many movies and TV shows that are based on true events in no way resemble what actually happened.  That being said, I’m completely on board with this creative and fictional story set against the backdrop of the Manhattan Project.

I wasn’t familiar with most of the cast before I started the series.  Rachel Borsnahan I know Netflix’s House of Cards and is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with on television.  Daniel Stern obviously has a long and illustrious career with such nostalgic hits as Home Alone and The Wonder Years.  He continues his terrific career here with a complicated and understated performance.  I hope his character gets more to do in the next season because he’s really great.  Other familiar faces include Richard Schiff from The West Wing, which makes sense given Thomas Schlamme’s role here as an executive producer.  Schiff is terrific as a shady behind the scenes government man willing to do what it takes to keep the secrets of “the hill” secret.  In the early episodes of the season, I thought Olivia Williams (Rushmore) was being wasted, but her character has a cunning intelligence that makes her much more formidable than she lets on.

There are many newcomers and people I peripherally recognize from other projects.  John Benjamin Hickey essentially plays the lead character, working on his own design for the bomb while the principal team across campus gets all the funding and resources to build what he sees as an inferior device.  Ashley Zukerman’s portrayal of a brilliant physicist struggling with the ethical questions of building such a powerful weapon while his marriage to Borsnahan crumbles around him is really interesting.  Harry Lloyd, who I’d previously seen on an episode of Doctor Who about 5 years ago isn’t given much to do this season, but demonstrates he’s capable of hitting the emotional highs and lows that his confident, stiff demeanor belie.

Possibly my favorite actor in the entire series is Katja Herbers, who is the sole female physicist on the base.  It would have been easy for them to do a lot with her not being taken seriously because she’s a woman or making a lot of chauvinistic remarks, but as a hand-selected member of Hicky’s team, she is generally accepted as an equal by that group at least.  She is a confident, independent, sexually progressive character and she’s wonderfully played, which sets her apart from most of the rest of the cast, at least for now.

Overall, the series is really interesting.  The drama fires on all levels, the stakes are incredibly high, and the characters keep you wanting more.  I for one will be eagerly tuning in to see what they d with season 2

Special features include several behind the scenes featurettes, and commentary from various members of the cast and crew on select episodes.  Available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate.  Season 2 is set to premier sometime this fall on WGN America.

About the Author:

Joe Sanders Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
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