Life under Peak TV is a life of suffocating excess unless you’re prepared to pretend most of it isn’t real. (Apple’s streaming service? Not real. DC Universe? Not real. The Handmaid’s Tale? Definitely not real.) I’m well used to the familiar rhythms of oh-have-you-ever-heard-of-this, no-what-is-it, oh-it’s-this-show-you-have-to-watch, maybe-I’ll-see-if-I-have-time, but now and then someone will catch me off guard. I’ll be reading some article about a series that’s just been greenlit. “Oh neat,” I’ll say to myself. “I’m glad John Leguizamo is getting work. But what the hell is the Paramount Network? Is that new?” Reader, it was.
Peak TV has prompted a wave of networks to break into the “original programming space”. Fresh faces compete not only with established networks, but old ones suddenly deciding they can do more than just show reruns of Becker. On the younger side, you have the likes of Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, which basically only exists to carry his wrestling show, Lucha Underground. Vice launched their own network, Viceland, in 2016, with Spike Jonze as its creative director, so if you were wondering what Spike Jonze has been doing instead of making movies, he’s been overseeing lots of perfectly fine documentaries and also, for some reason, a television show where James Van Der Beek plays Diplo? Pivot burst onto the scene in 2013 with exclusive imports like Australian comedy-drama Please Like Me and British sci-fi thriller Fortitude, followed by some weird Joseph-Gordon Levitt thing and a Meghan McCain talk show, and then folded almost immediately. Even the Scientologists have their own network now! Meanwhile, among the sleeping giants of US cable: Epix, whatever that is, woke from its slumber to make a comedy where Nick Nolte is a former President of the United States; truTV, the reality TV network, realised its apparent true destiny as an incubator for alternative comedy; MTV decided it was time to stop screwing around and commit to original scripted programming with a bevy of often-acclaimed shows, then cancelled everything except Scream, and then announced Teen Wolf would return as a podcast, of all things.
It has been, to say the least, a tumultuous few years for television, with not just wave after wave of shows getting cancelled but whole networks vanishing into thin air. (RIP Chiller, we hardly knew ye.) Unsurprisingly, the casualties have included plenty of great television whose only fault was airing on channels that no one realised had their own television shows. Even shows that could’ve been – that should’ve been – the next Mad Men or Breaking Bad.
Shows like Manhattan.
WGN America, a network that will go down in history as “the most reliable place to watch reruns of In the Heat of the Night”, launched its original programming in 2014 with two very different period dramas. Salem was a supernatural melodrama set during the titular witch trials. Manhattan was a historical thriller about the development of the atomic bomb. Salem was popular, and Manhattan was acclaimed. More than almost any other show lost in the sea of Peak TV, it had the potential to be remembered as one of the best television shows ever made. But no one watched WGN America, so no one watched Manhattan. They cancelled it after its second season, and then polished off the rest of their original programming – Salem, as well as the Appalachian crime series Outsiders and the acclaimed slavery drama Underground – in just over a year. WGN America subsequently scrubbed all four shows from its website without explanation: they now exclusively list imported shows among their “original series”. And, according to Manhattan star Katja Herbers, the network didn’t even bother submitting the show’s second season to the Emmys. I’m baffled by the whole situation. It’s one thing to cut your losses and run if you can’t make a show profitable, but to pretend it never happened, as if it was embarrassing? For shows as well-received as Manhattan and Underground?
Manhattan wasn’t just a good show, it was a truly great one, and one of the very few shows I never doubted would stay great. Set in Los Alamos, New Mexico, it initially focused on the members of the team working on the implosion-type bomb that will eventually be known as Fat Man, under Dr Frank Winters (John Benjamin Hickey), and a new arrival, rising star of the physics world Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), as well as their respective wives, Dr Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) and Abby Isaacs (Rachel Brosnahan). Frank’s team is filled out by his mentor Dr Glen Babbit (Daniel Stern) and four comparative youngsters: nervous Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham), fun-loving Louis “Fritz” Fedowitz (Michael Chernus), ambitious Brit Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd) and Dr Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), a Dutch-American who is completely in love with science. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, obviously, but two main sources of dramatic tension run throughout the series, making it one of the most gripping and tightly-wound dramas on television.
First, on the most basic level, the characters struggle with the conditions at Los Alamos. They’re under constant surveillance, isolated from the outside world, and completely at the whim of the military authorities. Frank’s team are forced to compete for scarce resources with the rival team working on the gun-type bomb that will eventually be known as Little Boy. The death in suspicious circumstances of a scientist carrying classified documents leads to a witch hunt for spies that might not even exist. Liza and Abby both suffer due to the boredom of base life and the secrets their husbands must keep from them, especially Liza, who is an accomplished botanist in her own right, but cannot pursue her work at Los Alamos. Characters are discriminated against for their gender, their sexuality, and their ethnicity. National identity and allegiance are called into question, not just with Crosley, who still technically works for the British government, but with Frank, whose mother was German, and the Isaacs, who lose family in the Holocaust and consider moving to Israel when the war is over. This material is handled beautifully, with the directors, writers and performers working in perfect unison to create some of the richest and most detailed characters in any show I’ve ever seen. The cast in particular is second to none and I remain such a lifelong fan of everyone involved that I’m still watching the underwhelming sci-fi thriller Counterpart just because Olivia Williams and Harry Lloyd are in it.
Lloyd is Manhattan’s secret weapon, with Crosley initially appearing to be a cut-throat individualist who cares about nothing but personal gain, only for his heart to burst open from the pressure of his buried compassion. That transformation – so easy to do shallowly, so difficult to do with Lloyd’s depth of feeling – is a prime example of the second, more powerful line of drama that Manhattan mines: the moral stakes of the Manhattan Project itself. Everyone at Los Alamos confronts the abhorrent nature of the work they’re doing at some point and must decide whether they can live with it. Hickey shines brightest in these parts of the show, refusing to play off the most awful moral burden imaginable with stoicism or grim fortitude. Frank wants desperately to save lives by bringing the war to a swift conclusion, but the only tool he’s been given to do that is a machine that annihilates life, and it tears him apart. This is not a “single manly tear tumbling down the cheek” situation. Frank weeps and wails and wakes up drenched in sweat from apocalyptic nightmares. He gets drunk and sobs on the kitchen floor, he rails against anyone who dares treat human life with even a hint of flippancy. He does stupid, desperate things to try and find a third way that will let him avoid making the choice, and when that doesn’t work, he puts everything on the line to take a stand for the course of action he believes in.
It’s a moral seriousness about the atomic bomb almost unheard-of in US pop culture. The nuke is a constant presence in post-war US media, of course, but as a hypothetical. The outrageousness and absurdity and evil of the bomb is contemplated only in so far as it might be dropped again. The fact that the bomb was already dropped – twice – on Japanese civilians by the United States is rarely, if ever, acknowledged. When it is, even to this day, most will bend over to defend it, as Nathan J. Robinson writes in Current Affairs: “Seventy years on, not only do media experts rush to excuse the bombings, but they rush to excuse them with a certitude that one usually sees reserve for the most elementary scientific truths. To these writers, that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified is as obvious as the law of gravity.” Manhattan directly engages with exactly the moral question that American pop culture is wilfully blind to: the characters debate the moral validity of the bombings in detail in the second season. The only comparably serious treatments I can think of, on film, at least, are Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear and the experimental British film A Short Vision. This expansive moral vision and willingness to deal seriously with such sensitive matters was the quality that would have allowed the show to continue for many years longer if it had only been allowed. The end of the war glimmers on the horizon throughout the second season, and the moral question of using the bomb expands to include the bomb existing at all, as the possibility of other countries acquiring their own nuclear arsenal becomes an immediate cause for concern. The USSR looms largest, of course, but this thematic thread also dovetails with the show’s thoughtful exploration of the rise of Zionism in response to the Holocaust, as the Jewish characters debate whether to use their knowledge to furnish a future Israel with nuclear fire.
I think often of what might have been had Manhattan been picked up by a real network instead of WGN America. It was a very special show that really enriched my life. I don’t know whether it was the richness of its characters, the searching beauty of its cinematography, or the way it enmeshed the drama of the narrative so elegantly within the historical and cultural fabric of wartime America that it becomes, in part, a character study of the nation itself. But every time I finished an episode of Manhattan, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that less than an hour had passed. It felt impossible that any show could accomplish so much in so little time. Sometimes an hour can seem like a year because you’re watching a total piece of shit and it won’t end, but sometimes it’s because you’re experiencing more beauty than your feeble lizard brain can comprehend fitting into such a small space of time. It’s a bit mad, I know, but I genuinely feel that, on my deathbed, my life will seem a little longer than it really was because I watched Manhattan. I can’t claim that as an integral part of the viewing experience, but I hope it goes some way to expressing how highly I regard it, because I want more people to watch it.
I know it’s too late. I know it was cut off at the knees, and it’ll probably never be regarded as one of the greatest shows ever made. Maybe that’s a fair judgement, since it never fully realised all that it could be, though it’s still a strong top ten for me, cancellation or no. But I’ve realised I don’t care half as much about whether people like Manhattan as I do about whether people remember it at all. It’s a travesty that WGN America evidently want to sweep their experiment with original TV under the rug like dirt. It was likely the only worthwhile contribution to the medium they’ll ever make, but they don’t want anyone to know it even happened.
There are too many shows whose existence is only recorded in Wikipedia pages. Manhattan doesn’t deserve to be one of them. Please don’t let it fade away.