Starring: John Benjamin Hickey, Olivia Williams, Ashley Zuckerman
“Manhattan” is only WGN America’s second original series, but if the quality of its pilot, “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” is any indication, more are sure to follow.
The World War II period drama follows the lives of several scientists and their families as they work on the famed Manhattan Project. Set amid New Mexico’s desert landscape, the art design is bleak and muted. Most scenes look overexposed and undersaturated.
The effect is an unpleasant, even hostile frame perfect for the construction of this world filled with fear and anxiety. The tone of this introduction to the series is tense and promises no relief in the upcoming episodes.
A significant portion of screen time is dedicated to establishing the stakes involved with developing the world’s first atomic bomb. While this is appropriate given the series’ topic, the conversations begin to feel redundant. New young genius recruit Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman) ponders the miles-wide blast radius of an atomic weapon and the number of civilians in a large city. But the series ultimately seems to require a mostly one-sided patriotism from its viewers.
At the core of the series’ action is a group of underdog scientists competing with a better funded and higher regarded team at the same camp.
Both are trying to build the better bomb. But in keeping with the shades of moral absolutism, the central ragtag group just wants to protect the home front and save soldiers. Their competitors are profit-driven. This is made clear by several speeches by Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hinkley), the team’s lead scientist, about how crucial their work is and the lives it will save, as well as his apocalyptic mushroom-cloud nightmare early in the episode. That nightmare features an ominous recording of the Ink Spots’ “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” The song is on the nose to express the fears of the nuclear age and was already featured in the nuclear-winter-themed video game series “Fallout.”
While the pilot may fail to convey the intricate moral complexities of the show’s premise, it does promise further elaboration on these and similar issues, including the racism and sexism prevalent in the scientists’ camp, both of which are explicitly and uncomfortably demonstrated in this episode.
“Manhattan” doesn’t hit every mark in its first episode, but it never lands so far away that it can’t adjust as the series goes on. Overall, there is plenty of promise for the future of this historic drama.
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