Best TV of the Decade, No. 15: “Manhattan”

manhattan

We’ve all known the sting of lost love – in TV, if not real life. It’s always a downer when a show we cherish goes off the air, and it’s especially dispiriting if said show was cut short before it got to live up to its potential. The 2000s were filled with these one-season and two-season wonders, from Freaks and Geeks to Firefly to Wonderfalls to Carnivale. They lived before their time, and died before it as well.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that modern TV has distinctly dulled the blade of the cancellation scythe. With the rise of Peak TV, cable and streaming networks (and even some broadcasters) are more likely to stick with a low-rated show in hopes that it capitalizes on a niche audience. Furthermore, shows with small but devoted fanbases are more likely now to be resurrected. Lucifer and Designated Survivor found new life on Netflix; The Expanse lives again on Amazon. Even years after their end, some shows get a new shot at life, as seen in revivals of The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Will and Grace. Heck, Veronica Mars was resurrected twice this decade, first as a (good) movie and then as a (less good) fourth season.

But though the cancellation bug may seem vanquished, some promising shows still live fast and die too young. Just ask Terriers or Bunheads or Enlightened or Underground or The Grinder.

Or – my own personal pick for “Most Hurtful Cancellation of the Decade” – Manhattan.

Odds are that some of you reading this have never even heard of Manhattan. And that’s a real shame for this true victim of the Peak TV deluge. Had the series premiered in the late 2000s, it would be hailed by critics, swamped with Emmys, and beloved by audiences (so long as they weren’t too historically conscious). But alas, it’s been nearly forgotten in the years since its premature end.

Manhattan premiered on WGN (first problem right there – how many cities even get that network?) in July 2014. Set during the latter days of World War II, the show centers on the secretive Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. Beneath the quaint exterior of the small rural town, Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) leads a team of nuclear scientists in their attempt to figure out the key to the atom bomb. He frequently clashes with rival scientist Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), a young genius put upon by his seasoned peers. The rivalry between Frank and Charlie forms the initial backbone of the show, but the series soon branches out into several more complex directions.

Early on, the show could feel like a prestige TV wannabe, with high production values but little in the way of serious depth. But after four or five episodes, as the supporting cast began to grow in prominence, the show quickly revealed that – much like the Project it was named after – Manhattan was more than it appeared. There was Frank’s wife Liza (Olivia Williams), a botanist whose own intellectual potential was hampered by her gender. Charlie’s wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), nervous housewife and closeted bisexual. Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd), a British scientist with conflicting loyalties to the USA. And so forth. No one was quite who they appeared, which helped the show capitalize on the fears and paranoia of the age.

More impressive was the tonal change – as the show progressed, it slowly but subtly morphed from an idealized historical series into an antihero drama, as we faced pressing questions: Should we be rooting for the people whose collective minds created the deadliest weapon in human history? As deeper government conspiracies are uncovered, we begin to question whether the Americans are the true “heroes” in the ongoing war, and whether our leads are as noble as they appear to be. (Winter himself may come off as white-bread – he’s the de facto good guy, surrounded by many others who are more complex and flawed than he is – but the show gives Hickey a lot of strong dramatic material to work with.)

Manhattan’s best episode is its second season finale, “Jupiter,” a thrilling and tense hour that features more betrayals and heartbreaks than most season-enders can dream of. It’s a spectacular finale with a haunting final shot, setting up an even more promising third season.

Which, of course, never materialized. The show’s ratings were catastrophically bad – “Jupiter” scored a paltry 200,000 viewers, making it one of the least-watched finales in cable history. Manhattan ended its second season on a cliffhanger, and a few weeks later, WGN pulled the plug.

To this day, I have yet to meet another human soul who has watched this show. Its appeal seems limited to a handful of critics, as well as people curious to see what Brosnahan was up to before Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I like to think that someday, long after the Peak TV era passes, an archaeologist digs up a boxset of the series, dusts it off, and discovers one of the hidden gems of the 2010s.

Though I’m not getting my hopes up. If Manhattan taught me anything, nuclear war will have annihilated all of us by then.

Tune in tomorrow for the 14th-best show of the decade, which proved that answers are overrated.

The List So Far

20. Person of Interest
19. Justified
18. Hannibal
17. The Americans
16. Atlanta

8 thoughts on “Best TV of the Decade, No. 15: “Manhattan””

  1. This sounds right up my alley. My plan is to finish Halt and Catch Fire, then watch Pushing Daisies (on a Lee Pace kick), then this. I don’t see it on Netflix, unfortunately. Is it on Prime?

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    1. It’s on Hulu. Like I said, it takes a few episodes to get going, but it’s definitely worth the watch.

      Heck, I didn’t even mention some of the excellent actors in it (Daniel Stern, David Harbour, Richard Schiff, Mamie Gummer…). Just a great show in so many ways.

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      1. This is the first time I’ve come across the fact that Hopper was on Manhattan. This show does seem like it would be up my ally, but I don’t believe it’s streaming anywhere in Canada, so I would have to buy it – which is a tough sell. I’m not sure it ever aired anywhere in Canada for that matter.

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  2. I just finished the series last night, and I have to say it was one of the most jaw-dropping finales I’ve ever seen. I read that creator Sam Shaw really wanted there to be at least one or two more seasons to really dig into the complex post-war era. I would have liked to see that.

    On the other hand, it went out with its best episode, and both seasons were incredible. Los Alamos is an inherently great setting for a drama, and Manhattan fully lived up to its potential. There are those who criticize it for being historically inaccurate, but it never aimed to be. It aimed to incorporate history into a compelling drama, and boy, did it succeed. The most interesting parts were Frank being the one to knock on Einstein’s door and Abby sending Joey away being the catalyst that lead Charlie to advocate Fat Man being used to maximize civilian casualties-that was quite possibly the most chilling moment in the whole series. It was based on arguments that Edward Teller made in letters that he wrote. Leo Szilard was of the opposite opinion, and I believe Szilard’s petition advocating for the bombs to be used in a demonstration on an uninhabited island was the basis for Frank’s petition. Even though Frank wanted scientists to have a seat at the table, personally, he was vehemently opposed to dropping them on a civilian population, just like Szilard.

    One of the top 5 of the decade for me, for sure.

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    1. Glad you liked it! Yeah, I remember the criticisms when the show premiered – folks came in expecting a historically accurate show, but… that was never its goal. It was a morally grey character drama, and a pretty great one at that.

      I still wish we could’ve gotten one or two more seasons. Would’ve been great to see the show deal with the end of WWII and beyond.

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      1. Overall, the first mushroom cloud is a hell of a place to end it. But think of all the conflicts that could have taken over a third season. Off the top of my head:
        -Oppenheimer’s fall from grace
        -Jim’s reaction to Fritz’s suicide and guilt over getting his best friend and his wife killed.
        -Frank confronting Charlie over his decision to tell the US army to drop the bomb on a civilian population because he had one bad day.
        -Frank and Charlie’s reactions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Would Charlie be haunted by guilt for the rest of his life? Possibly.
        -The beginning of Cold War tensions, with Paul working for the CIA and Jim working for the KGB.
        -More story-lines for Helen and Liza. They got shafted a bit in Season 2. Especially Helen.
        -The Soviets getting their hands on the first bomb.

        I’m satisfied with the finale because it was such an incredible episode and a ‘wham’ moment to end on. But there was tons of great material left. There’s no justice in the tv world! Friends went 10 seasons. Grr.

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        1. I think Friends got more seasons because the average Friends episode had thrice as many viewers as all 23 episodes of Manhattan combined.

          Regardless, there was indeed tons of potential for this show to continue. I keep hoping we’ll someday get a revival (maybe just a TV movie to wrap things up), but that would require a significant chunk of America to have even heard of the show.

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