ManhattancoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
2014-15, 622 min. (13 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be TV-14 for sexual situations, brief nudity, language, some violence)
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: B+
Trailer/Amazon link

Fact: On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States dropped a pair of atomic bombs—each with the force of 10 million tons of dynamite—on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 130,000 civilians but also abruptly ending the war and its daily body count. It was a morally questionable decision then, when the U.S. was racing a team of German scientists to become the first nation to develop a nuclear weapon that would guarantee victory, and it remains so many years later.

Fact: Under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves and physicist J. Robert Oppenhemer, the Manhattan Project had components scattered across the U.S., but its main facility was located at Los Alamos National Laboratory in a remote part of New Mexico, where top minds were recruited to work on the design and construction of the bombs.

Fact: Because it was top secret, Los Alamos was never referred to by name, only as “Site Y” or “the Hill.” Recruits and their families went there with only a post office box to guide them and found a primitive, heavily restricted community of Quonset huts and wood frame buildings. The birth certificates of children born there list only P.O. Box 1663 as their place of birth.

Fiction: Manh(a)ttan, an original WGN period drama, has a Mad Men vibe to it, not only because it drops you so believably into a different era, but also because of its similar use of music and camera angles, its emphasis on old guard vs. new, and a cast of characters that all seem to face moral dilemmas. It also has a West Wing feel because of the high stakes, crisp dialogue, and scenic constructions that somehow manage to squeeze tension out of seemingly “normal” conversations. Director Thomas Schlamme is a veteran of The West Wing, and Manhattan is just as strong of a series.

ManhattanscreenWe don’t know if it’s fact or fiction that the Army created a competition at Los Alamos between a better funded “A” team of scientists under the direction of Dr. Reed Akley (David Harbour) and a “B” team run by the maverick Dr. Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey). But we don’t care, because the situation itself is rooted in history and it’s believable, given the urgency of the situation and the U.S. Government’s practice of making sure that no one knows more than what their compartmentalized section is working on. Loose lips sink ships. And atomic bomb projects.

Manhattan is a taut drama because so much is in play, often at the same time. The Americans are racing the Germans and an imaginary clock, the A team of scientists is competing with the B team and their alternate vision of what will make an A-bomb work, newcomers like wiz kid Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) are competing with jealous colleagues, the scientists are sometimes at odds with the military establishment responsible for maintaining security and secrecy, the scientists find themselves facing new tension and resentments from the suddenly bored and “captive” women they brought with them to the base, those who feel the project should forge ahead at all costs are at odds with those who want to exercise some caution because of the contaminants they’re working with, and when it’s clear that a spy is among them more tension ensues when a government official (West Wing veteran Richard Schiff) conducts his own version of a McCarthy witch hunt.  

There are individual tensions as well. Winter’s wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), a Ph.D. in botany who finds life on “the hill” frustrating because Army censors keep taking out the heart of any scholarly paper she tries to mail to a journal. But even she doesn’t immediately notice another source of drama: the fact that some of her chrysanthemums that should be white are purple instead, or the fact that her beehive is struggling. Another character is struggling financially and tries to benefit from his own research.

All of the characters and the actors who play them are fascinating, three-dimensional beings that we instantly care about. It’s a great ensemble, with the standouts being Williams as Liza Winter, Hickey as Frank Winter, Daniel Stern (City Slickers) as the goat-bearded mentor Glen Babbit, and Abby Isaacs (Rachel Brosnahan), Charlie’s bored wife who finds herself suddenly drawn into a lesbian relationship with the intriguing French woman (Carole Weyers) who lives across from them.

Given all the tension that Manhattan has going for it naturally, my family and I found the sex subplots to be a little gratuitous and unnecessary, but that’s really the only complaint about a series that had us wishing we could pop in Season 2 right away. But Manhattan is every bit a TV-14 series. Sex is often suggested or depicted, with key body parts covered, while once a woman’s bare derriere is shown in half-darkness. Although there isn’t much violence, what’s here can be disturbing: a suicide, a murder, and beatings. Compared to those, language that consists mostly of “damns” and “hells” aren’t terribly memorable.

But for teens and their parents who like a good continuing drama that arcs over 13 episodes, Manhattan is a riveting series. You like these people, you love the period brought to life, and you learn what it must have been like to live in the middle of history literally in the making. Production values are excellent as well, with the Blu-ray featuring plenty of detail, rich period-looking colors, and a vibrant soundtrack that has plenty of depth and resonance.

Language: Lots of “damns” and “hells,” a few scattered others
Sex: All consensual, mostly suggested with some (but not “key”) body parts showing except for one female rear-end in half-darkness
Violence: A murder, a suicide, some beatings
Adult situations: Same-sex seduction, intense interrogations
Takeaways: Few things are black and white, and WGN isn’t just the home of Chicago sports; this miniseries is as good as anything HBO or the other networks have done

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