TV worth watching: Manhattan

7 minute read

Picture of Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman)

Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman), physicist protagonists of the WGN America television series “Manhattan”.

Manhattan is a quality TV show about the people racing to build an atomic bomb and their families. It’s well worth watching, but you’ll enjoy it more if you remember you’re not tuned to the History Channel.

Sometimes people say that a particular TV show is “the best thing you’re not watching”. With respect to Manhattan the second part of this is certainly true; the show’s ratings are pretty low, even in this age of niche shows and fragmented audiences. The first part I can’t definitively speak for, since I don’t watch a lot of TV, but in general I like Manhattan and definitely recommend you check it out—hence this blog post.

Briefly, Manhattan is a (very heavily) fictionalized telling of the race to create the first atomic bomb, focusing on the scientific community at Los Alamos, New Mexico. It’s about the actual Manhattan project in the same sense that the movie MASH was about the real-life Korean War—just as MASH used an early-1950s setting to explore 1960s Vietnam-era attitudes, Manhattan is an effort to search for the roots of the post-9/11 “war on terror” and its subsequent fallout (Guantanamo Bay, Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, and so on) in the secret World War II-era scientific and engineering efforts that led to the creation of the national security establishment and the military-industrial complex.1

Picture of the Los Alamos entrance on the set of Manhattan

The entrance to the Los Alamos “tech area” on the WGN America television series “Manhattan”.

It’s a pretty weighty premise for a TV show, and the scientific nature of a lot of the plot is a further barrier for prospective viewers just looking for an hour’s entertainment. (For example, one of the major plot points hinges on the fact that the element plutonium used in atomic weapons has multiple isotopes, one of which, P-240, undergoes spontaneous fission much more readily than the more common isotope P-239.2) The show is produced by the fledging network WGN America, apparently in an attempt to establish itself as a serious player in the “prestige television” market, similar to what Mad Men did for AMC.

Unfortunately 1940s physicists are not as relatable to most people as 1960s advertising executives, which may help account the low ratings. When I started writing this post I didn’t know whether WGN America was willing to subsidize the show any further, and I thought I’d be writing an obituary rather than a recommendation. Happily WGNA recently decided to renew the show for a second season.

So, why should you watch Manhattan? First, the historical and scientific background is genuinely interesting, especially for a former physics major like me but I think potentially for others as well. We all know how this show ends (with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) but the path to working atomic weapons was long and fraught with difficulties—for a while it was unclear whether it was even possible to build a working bomb. Manhattan, like almost all TV shows and movies, takes some liberties with the actual scientific facts, but the core of the story is real, and the key problems that the protagonists face are the same problems that their real-life counterparts strove to overcome.

Following on from the previous point, it’s great to see fictional characters who (no matter their personal foibles) are intelligent and competent—people you can actually believe could solve major technical problems. (Even the non-physicist characters are generally pretty smart people; with perhaps one or two exceptions no one comes off as an idiot.) It’s a refreshing change from TV shows and movies where scientists are played as overly-confident villians or comedic ivory-tower types. (As an prime example of the latter I give you The Big Bang Theory, a show that I found to be utterly unwatchable the one time I tried to watch it.)

Cast of “Manhattan” in character

The cast of “Manhattan”, including Ashley Zuckerman and Rachel Brosnahan (left and second from left) as Charlie and Abby Isaacs, and John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams (fifth and sixth from left) as Frank and Liza Winter.

Finally, the cast (of mostly unknowns, at least to me) is almost uniformly excellent. The actors portraying the main protagonists do a particularly good job in my opinion, but really pretty much everyone in the main cast is spot-on. They’re helped out by the writing; I can think of only a few instances where the combination of writing and actor came off as somewhat cartoonish.

Manhattan is by no means a perfect show. A lot of people commenting on the Facebook page take issue with the “soap opera” aspects of the show. Some of this is attributable to the desire of the show’s creators to highlight the human drama inherent in being uprooted from normal life and plopped in the middle of a jerry-built secret city in the middle of the New Mexico desert, especially for spouses and children left behind while the (mostly) men-folk went off to “the Hill” to toil on tasks they couldn’t talk about when they came back home for the night.

Some of it is also due to trying to keep viewers from fuzzing out during the science-y parts, in anticipation of some juicy action and intrigue to follow. As one example, there have been two deaths by gunshot thus far, which is one more than occurred during the entire history of the Manhattan project, an enterprise that employed 130,000 people at its height.

Another issue is that Manhattan (like many other TV series and movies) often anachronistically projects back into a former time the attitudes and issues of the present-day. For example, as noted above a premise of the show in exploring the roots of present-day secrecy in the race to build an atomic bomb. But in fact the real-life scientists in Los Alamos apparently weren’t quite as oppressed by security concerns as the fictional scientists on the show, and for the most part behaved as scientists typically do in terms of sharing information and cooperating amongst themselves. (That would change, but not until after World War II when the Cold War began in earnest.)

The show also touches on various social issues, pretty much all of which get the standard “Hollywood liberal” treatment. Again, there’s a partial excuse for this, since the scientists at Los Alamos were part of an American intelligentsia that even in the 1940s was pretty socially liberal, but it sometimes comes across as a bit didactic.3

These issues keep Manhattan from being truly great in my opinion, but it’s still one of the better shows I’ve seen in the past few years. Tonight is the season finale (at 10 pm Eastern on WGN America, channels 29 and 568 on FiOS TV in Howard County), but if you’re like me you can catch it on Hulu at your convenience.

For those interested in reading more about the show, unfortunately unlike many other “prestige” shows Manhattan hasn’t gotten a lot of attention on pop-culture sites. The best sources for commentrary and recaps are at science writer Jennifer Oulette’s “Cocktail Party Physics” blog, the “Science Fact vs. Fiction” section on the web site of Popular Mechanics magazine, and on the web site of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit seeking to preserve historical sites and records associated with the Manhattan project. (The latter is a worthy project to which I recently donated.) The Los Alamos Historical Society also has some interesting material contrasting the show’s vision of Los Alamos compared to the real thing.

If you do decide to try out Manhattan I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, and if so we can look forward together to the second season.

  1. See for example this interview with the show’s creator, Sam Shaw: “What I discovered … is that the birth of the atomic bomb … was also really the birth of the military-industrial complex, the birth of the American security apparatus. It’s the birth of secrecy at a national level as it exists right now.” The Manhattan project was actually just one component of this birth. Others included the creation and large-scale deployment of radar, the British project to break the German Enigma code—itself to be explored in the upcoming movie The Imitation Game—and the parallel creation of the National Security Agency and other agencies that today make up what insiders call “the IC” (“intelligence community”). 

  2. I was a physics major, spent a semester in college working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (one of the three main Manhattan Project sites), and have seen a working nuclear reactor up close and personal. But even I didn’t know (or had forgotten) about the plutonium isotope problem. 

  3. One social issue that Manhattan devotes some time to, anti-Semitism, was in fact a pretty big factor during that period. (For example, the future Nobel prize-winner Richard Feynman, who worked at Los Alamos during the war, attended university at MIT because his first choice, Columbia, had a Jewish quota in place.) One of the best episodes of the show thus far, “The Second Coming” (episode 8), dealt in part with what it meant to be a American Jew during World War II.