Review

07.27.14

WGN’s ‘Manhattan’ Is Summer’s Best New Show. But Will Anyone Watch?

With summer’s best new series, WGN’s ‘Manhattan,’ airing on a network you’ve never heard of, we wonder if the glut of quality programming is more of a curse than a blessing.

There is a set of hurdles a new television series typically needs to clear in order to get viewers to watch it. First, it should be good—something that the compelling new period drama Manhattan, which premieres Sunday night, certainly has going for it. The show’s not perfect, but it’s quite possibly the best new offering this summer.

The second hurdle, though, is where Manhattan might stumble: drilling into potential viewers’ heads where and when to watch it. You see, Manhattan airs on WGN America. And most TV consumers have no idea what the hell WGN America is.

The network is hoping that Manhattan, which follows a group of WWII-era scientists working to build the country’s first atomic bomb and the affect their mission has on their families, will change that. And it’s so good that it just might. 

The series takes place, as the opening title card reads, “766 days before Hiroshima” in a desert community called Los Alamos. It’s a dusty commune of sorts housing the country’s most brilliant scientists and their kept-in-the-dark families as the men—and a few women—work out the math that will add up to the world’s biggest explosion. Even the existence of Los Alamos is classified, meaning its inhabitants are incubating in a petri dish, their patriotism and paranoia both festering in a controlled, claustrophobic environment.

Manhattan’s sepia aesthetic—befitting a vintage propaganda poster—beautifully and chillingly contrasts against the grimmer, more disturbing elements of its plot. There’s Frank Winter (The Big C’s John Benjamin Hickey), the passionate veteran killing himself and his relationship with his wife (The Ghost Writer’s Olivia Williams) by working so doggedly—too doggedly—on a bomb design, motivated by his altruistic conviction to bring the boys back from war.

Running parallel is a storyline involving Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman), a wunderkind young scientist plucked directly from Harvard to work with a team opposing Winter on a different bomb design—only he doesn’t learn that’s the reason that he’s in Los Alamos, or that there’s even a bomb being made at all, until after he arrives. Familiar, unnerving themes of skepticism and deception weave narratives that tangle Frank and Charlie’s arcs together as government secrets are revealed…and then even more made and kept.

As the arms race escalates and the secrets and lies unfold, the result is a series that’s both tense and sleepy in its pace. Throw in the period setting and “like Mad Men during WWII” shorthand becomes inevitable. In a summer that’s offered new programs that pretty much all sit on the spectrum from “silly, but still curious” (Extant, The Strain) on one end to “just plain silly” (Dating Naked) on the other, Manhattan is the most grown up, worth-watching new series we have.

Manhattan’s sepia aesthetic—befitting a vintage propaganda poster—beautifully and chillingly contrasts against the grimmer, more disturbing elements of its plot.

And it’s on this network no one’s heard of.

Until recently, WGN America was the network you’d watch without knowing you were watching it. You’d scour the TV guide quickly on a lazy Sunday afternoon, see that a 30 Rock rerun was on, and blindly click on it, unknowingly landing on WGN. It’s only recently that WGN has worked to graduate from a network you stop by while channel surfing to a destination you actually seek out.

Its first stride in that arena was the launch of its first original series this fall, the soap-y witch drama Salem, a series with far more niche, genre appeal. (On the summer programming spectrum, it skewed more towards “just plain silly,” sans the “but still curious” modifier.) Bringing in 2.3 million viewers in its premiere night, the ratings for Salem were nothing to scoff at, particularly for a network making its debut as a purveyor of original program. Hell, that’s pretty much on par with last season’s Mad Men ratings on AMC.

But ratings are one thing. Quality and buzz is the other, meaning Salem was not WGN’s Mad Men.

You see, every network needs its Mad Men, its The Shield, its Rectify to announce its presence as a legitimate incubator for quality original television to be taken seriously (as AMC, FX, and the SundanceTV, respectively, have). After missing that mark with the empty-calorie fluff of Salem, WGN is nailing it with Manhattan. Already critics are buzzing about the series, garnering necessary and positive word of mouth. If the ratings follow, then WGN may have just arrived.

It raises the question of whether there really just may be too much television these days.

There’s that old dad joke that people who pay too much for cable used to love to make: “I have 300 channels and yet there’s nothing to watch,” ostensibly mocking the fact that, at one point, the majority of television programming was mindless, unengaging filler. Now, those are looking like the good old days.

It seems to be the case now that nearly all of those 300 channels not only air series that are worth watching, but often it’s often the case that the shows are so good they almost demand watching. And it’s not just cable we’re dealing with anymore. Netflix, Amazon, and even Hulu are releasing excellent original programming online, and networks that some would never have imagined getting into scripted original programming—like WGN America and even king of the guilty pleasure reality show, Bravo—are venturing into the market, too.

With only so many hours in the day and so much DVR space at our disposal, facing the onslaught of quality television offerings these days is terrifying, sometimes confusing, and most of all tiring. But should you lack the energy to sift through the glut of options yourself, we can at least helpfully endorse this one.