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.