Starring John Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Zukerman, Olivia Williams, Rachel Brosnahan, and Daniel Stern
My rating: ★★1/2 stars
Not a bomb, but not an explosive beginning.
We are truly in a golden age of television if a show like Manhattan, the title referring to the Manhattan Project, can be made and last more than one season (which it has). Not too long ago, period dramas would occasionally appear on television and, with few exceptions, be quickly cancelled due to low ratings. Similarly, shows about smart people and intellectually difficult topics were rare and unsuccessful. Now, with scripted shows proliferating on cable, with less of a need for broad public support, a show about physicists in the 1940s can stay on the air.
The series focuses on a team working on developing an implosion-type (“Fat Man”) atomic bomb, led by the arrogant, impolitic, obsessive Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), a character inspired by the real-life scientist Seth Neddermeyer. The implosion-type is not the design favored by those in charge. Instead, most of the resources are assigned to the team working on the gun-type (“Thin Man”) bomb, led by the handsome, persuasive Reed Akley (David Harbour). The series must be praised for finding the right amount of science to include—enough to enhance the viewers’ understanding of the conflicts but not so much that the discussions become so tedious or difficult as to alienate the audience.
Students who know the minutiae of history are aware that the “Thin Man” design proved unworkable, and the “Fat Man” type became the primary design for atomic bombs.* In this first episode, none of the characters has figured out that the gun-type won’t work; Winter just knows that he can produce a bomb that will require less plutonium and will, thus, be ready earlier—at least a week or maybe even ten or twelve days. One of his scientists, acting as an audience surrogate, asks why such a paltry amount of time will matter, and it’s explained that time is the main antagonist for the scientists. Every hour, one hundred Americans are dying in the war and the Germans get closer to producing their own bomb.
Winter knows his design is superior, but he can’t convince the decision-makers of that. He doesn’t have the ability to sell himself and his work the way Akley does. His scruffy, bedraggled appearance compares poorly to Akley’s handsome polish, which shouldn’t matter among the smartest people in the world, but it does. And Winter’s abrasive personality alienates everyone except his wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), and his former teacher-turned-subordinate, Glen Babbit (Daniel Stern).
Actor John Benjamin Hickey manages to present Winter as someone who, we understand, is generally disliked and socially unskillful and, yet, someone whom the audience can root for. This series is the first time I’ve seen Hickey in a lead role, and he rises to the occasion.
The other main character is Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), a young scientist whose ideas are believed to have the potential to revolutionize the field. The episode begins with this wunderkind arriving at the camp in Los Alamos with his wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), and son, allowing the audience to introduced to the series’ milieu along with the Isaacs.
Isaacs is immediately assigned to Akley’s team, unsurprisingly as Akley’s team has 600 scientists and Winter’s has six. But Winter has been a subject of curiosity for Isaacs ever since Winter, acting as a peer-reviewer, rejected Isaacs’ research paper, “A New Approach to Nuclear Cosmology,” which was later published to universal acclaim. This conflict puts the two main characters, Winter and Isaacs, at odds, and further establishes Winter as someone who sees the world differently than everyone else does.
The episode also makes clear that the series will spend time dealing with the adjustment of the wives, who have to live in the camp, isolated from other family members, friends, and careers. Liza Winter is herself a scientist—a botanist—who has put her career on hold to follow her husband to Los Alamos. She fails to find stimulating companionship with the other wives, although she tries her best to be friendly and helpful. Abby Isaacs, in this episode, comes off as unlikable. She spends most of her scenes complaining about being cut off from everyone and everything. Brosnahan plays the character with a whining petulance that emphasizes the character’s youth. It’s too early in the series to judge whether Brosnahan’s risky presentation of the character will be successful.
This episode has little time to explore the characters that make up the rest of Winter’s team. In the middle of the episode, when the military police comes charging into their hut searching for lost papers, the scientists are all introduced quickly as a group—to the MPs and to the audience. The only team member that gets significant screen time is Sid Liao (Eddie Shin), the scientist who has taken the missing papers out of the hut. Although his intentions were benign (he took some of his own work to patent after the war is over), his action violates the rules of the camp and could lead him to be charged with espionage.
Winter runs out of time (the great enemy) to win over Oppenheimer (Daniel London) and the military brass, led by Col. Alden Cox (Mark Moses), to support his design. The threat of espionage causes his part of the project to be shut down and his scientists to be reassigned. When Winter discovers that his design will save a whopping twelve weeks of development time (and, thus, thousands of lives), he makes the difficult decision to turn Sid over to the MPs in exchange for keeping his design in development. The episode doesn’t show Winter revealing Sid’s responsibility for the missing papers to Cox. We have to infer what has happened when the MPs show up at Sid’s residence and drag him away with a canvas bag over his head, an image that will be recreated with another character in the season finale.
Winter’s betrayal of Sid mirrors the running justification that the scientists tell themselves when confronted with ethical and moral reservations about creating a weapon of awesome destructive power: that it is better to sacrifice a few to save many.
I saw enough potential in the episode to continue watching. Winter’s team is established as the underdogs, always the ones we want to root for. The series deals with an interesting and intellectually and morally complex part of history. The slightly washed out style adds to the sense of desert bleakness and makes the series look like the world as seen in historical photographs—even if the world appeared in vivid color to people at the time.
But the episode itself has problems. I didn’t care about the characters; no one in the episode, except maybe Liza Winter, appears likeable. Characters don’t have to be endearing, but they have to be people we want to invite into our living rooms for an hour every week (or for 13 hours straight if you binge-watch the season as I did). I wasn’t invested enough in the conflicts and characters to enjoy the episode. This lack of viewer engagement is problem common to most pilot episodes. They all struggle to entertain viewers who are not yet involved with the characters and the story. And this episode is not entertaining enough to be called a success.
*Future episodes will explain that the “Thin Man” design requires fuel of a purity that cannot practically be reached. According to my limited understanding of history, a modified version of the “Thin Man” design (“Little Boy”) was able to be created because enough of a rare alternative fuel was found to make one bomb.