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Manhattan: Season One

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // Unrated // April 7, 2015
List Price: $49.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted May 4, 2015 | E-mail the Author
As television budgets allow for more cinematic-looking shows, and the appeal of the lengthier TV format is broadened by programs like "The Wire", "Breaking Bad", and "Game of Thrones", the old contradiction of making serialized drama rears its head again. The storyline of a TV show must constantly move forward, developing its characters and revealing more of its story without actually resolving until that moment when the producers know the show is going to end (and even those blessed with that information are often the lucky ones). The result: a formula in which writers spend their pilot episode setting up as many loose ends as possible, the kind that can be left alone for seasons and pulled out as necessary, in order to maximize the sense that there was a plan all along. "Manhattan" manages to improve before its first season is over, but the present-tense of the story is nearly lost under the program's need to look toward the future (as well as its love for more than its share of tired tropes).

It's World War II, and Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) is a brilliant physicist, who, along with several competing physicists, is living in a military-run community in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where they are secretly racing to develop the atomic bomb for use on the Japanese. Frank is accompanied by his wife, Dr. Liza Winter (Olivia Williams), and his mentor, Dr. Glen Babbit (Daniel Stern), as well as the younger members of his staff. The newest member of the community is Dr. Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), a young kid recently hired by Frank's closest competitor, Dr. Reed Akley (David Harbour), who has just packed up his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) and their young son and driven them to the desert town without knowing what the job he's being offered really entails. All of the groups work under J. Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London), the reclusive genius who serves as the scientific liaison to the military.

Unsurprisingly, the recurring theme throughout the first season of "Manhattan" is secrecy and the toll it takes on people and their relationships with others. None of the teams are allowed to tell their families what it is they're working on, and even the military doesn't know what the scientists are there to do, creating friction between everyone. While ignoring the issue would almost certainly be a challenge, it's a fairly uninteresting avenue for the show to pursue. Beats in the pilot include Dr. Winter having a nightmare about his family being destroyed by the bomb, the desire of Frank's daughter Callie (Alexia Fast) to go to college in New York City instead of continuing to live in Los Alamos, and the unfortunate personal choices of one of Frank's lab members, Dr. Sid Liao (Eddie Shin), which are likely to get him branded a traitor and a spy. After Frank expresses his reservations about Callie's college dreams (a thinly-veiled concern that New York City could be a potential bombing site), she storms out of the room, exclaiming "It's Kafkaesque!", which is the kind of line only a screenwriter could imagine.

Execution could do plenty for lazy drama, but unfortunately "Manhattan" stumbles there too. Too many TV writers have arrived at the conclusion that the drama of knowing two characters confronting one another for specific reasons isn't enough; and endeavor to make sure the audience was surprised by those reasons as well. In the unfortunate modern tradition of shows like "LOST", "Manhattan" is meant to give off the impression that it's always playing something close to the chest, smugly hinting at the idea that there's information being withheld so that every audience member realizes there's a secret to be had. Characters frequently communicate and behave in ways that make sense in terms of pandering to the viewer, but not in terms of the way normal human beings act around one another. At the same time, the show just plain regurgitates familiar, standard TV drama beats: characters giving a speech about a bit of trivia as a road to expressing a philosophy, characters using big-picture ticking clocks for the sake of tension (in this case, the number of American soldiers killed so far), and of course, romantic flings and affairs gone wrong.

Thankfully, the program does improve over the course of the first season. As the episodes drag on, characters tend to spend more time talking to one another naturally rather than spitting character traits at one another. The character of Frank Winter, who starts out feeling like a Television Character with his world-weary expression and disheveled appearance, slowly softens into something more recognizable as a human being. Hickey is an unconventional lead for a TV program (although the show could just as easily be called a complete ensemble), coming off a bit like the producers hoped to capture some Bryan Cranston-style lightning in a bottle. Instead, it's members of the program's wide supporting cast who make more of an impression, including Katja Herbers as Dr. Helen Prins, one of the only female scientists on any of the teams, and Brosnahan as Isaac's wife, worried about her two cousins still trapped in Russia. By the time the season finale rolls around, the show has found a decent inner balance, but it's still an imperfect machine, one that too often allows the viewers to see TV's wheels turning on the inside.

The Blu-ray
"Manhattan": Season One arrives in a single-width, three-disc Viva Elite Blu-ray case. I dislike the new style of these cases, which, instead of housing two discs on the hinge tray and one disc on the back, places the first disc on the inside front cover and only one disc on the tray, necessitating the removal of the disc's episode guide and other paraphernalia (including an UltraViolet HD Digital Copy) whenever one wants to watch the first disc. The art is a promo picture of the Los Alamos community with the bomb buried in the middle of it, and the entire package slides inside a matte cardboard slipcover.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 1080p AVC and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, this is a very good-looking and sounding show in HD. Although the wartime setting is mostly contained within laboratories and houses rather than on the front lines, there's still plenty of unusual environments and explosive moments for the HD sound to capture. The show adopts a generally natural-looking palette, although there is a bit of repetition in the browns and grays of the desert surface and cloudy skies in order to emphasize the isolation that the characters feel. In dark scenes (of which there are plenty), no banding or artifacting is noticeable, and fine detail is excellent. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.

The Extras
Extras kick off with audio commentary on 3 episodes, two of which feature series creator / writer / executive producer Sam Shaw and executive producer / director Thomas Schlamme (for "You Always Hurt the One You Love" and "Perestroika"), and a third for "The Second Coming" with Daniel Stern and writer/producer Dustin Thomason. These are a bit on the dry side, with the show's crew obviously a bit more enamored with the dramatic integrity of their program than I was, but for fans of the show, they're probably worth at least one listen.

Four featurettes are also included, the first two on Disc 2, the other two on Disc 3. "Ground Zero: Bringing the Bomb to Screen" (14:45) is the overall featurette making the show, focusing on the story threads and the characters and cast. Pretty standard stuff. "P.O. Box 1663: Creating a City that Didn't Exist" (10:09) is more interesting, delving into the show's extensive set, which is actually in New Mexico, with production designer Ruth Ammon. "Now I Am Become Death: J. Robert Oppenheimer" (9:57) is a little peek into the real-life figure, featuring not just Alex Wellerstein, PhD, and the show's writers, but also several cast members, including Daniel London, who plays Oppenheimer on the show. Given it's only ten minutes, it is a fairly basic overview of the man, but it's one of the more intriguing extras included in the set. "Recreating an Era: 'Manhattan' Costume Design" (10:01) finishes the set off, peeking behind the extensive effort that went into designing clothes for the characters, with costume designer Alonzo Wilson obviously being the key player. Nothing too revolutionary, and probably a bit too complimentary, but nice just the same. All four featurettes are presented in HD.

Trailers for "Manhattan": Season Two (made up entirely of Season One footage), "Mad Men", "Sons of Liberty", Lionsgate TV, "Weeds": The Complete Series, and a promo for Epix play before the main menu on disc 1.

"Manhattan" is a show with some promise, but it too frequently feels like another new product out of the modern television drama factory, pressed with characters primed to be unwrapped in potential seasons. Certainly, set-up and payoff are a part of writing drama, but "Manhattan" isn't subtle, coming off less like compelling television and more like a starter kit waiting to be unwrapped. Perhaps Season 2 will be its moment to shine. Rent it.

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