The show also introduces mostly fictional characters to compensate for the lack of historical background, and what the show does is use these characters to tackle the themes of distrust amongst men, how much a person’s work can screw up your life and your mindset and whether creating something as devastating as an atomic bomb makes you a good or bad person. This series is more of a psychological drama than a historical one, and it goes to show that this series doesn't attempt to be a highly factual account, opting instead for drama and entertainment.
On that front, they succeed with moderate results: the show is basically Mad Men meets Stepford Wives with both the Manhattan Project and WWII as the series’ core driving force, and it does well at being an interpersonal character drama, but yet occasionally the show feels like too much of a slow-burner (at least with the first two episodes), which might be a problem for more mainstream or casual viewers. Also, in the first two episodes, we understand very little about any of these characters, which, if not for the performances, would’ve made it impossible to care about them. It’s like as if the show wants to rush in straight with its plotlines of espionage and cover-ups that it almost forgets about being a character drama. Also, the idea of having two warring sides within the project, making it seem almost like a competition to see which one can make the bomb first, seems incredibly ridiculous as well as historically inaccurate, and makes the seemingly intelligent scientists and leaders seem like bickering kids on a playground.
Yet, it’s clear that a lot of care and attention to detail was applied in order to create a time long past, and in creating 1940s Los Alamos, they succeed with flying colours. The cinematography is also striking, uniformly excellent and works well with the show’s visual design, but special plaudits should also go to the costume design and the soundtrack as well. The performances are for the most part compelling with Ashley Zukerman standing out as Charlie Isaacs, perfectly riding that balance of sympathetic and slimy, whilst Olivia Williams is unsurprisingly also incredibly solid as the spouse that is conflicted with her husband’s work.
Even though the Manhattan Project was a major controversial moment in history, Manhattan struggles at times to properly deliver on its historical foundations, instead taking probably too many detours into the clichéd routes of family dysfunction and a kind of silly emphasis on both espionage and divided divisions within a community with a common goal. As history, therefore, the series is a bit of a bomb itself (no pun intended). As a character drama, or even a soap opera, it’s solidly mounted with some excellent performances and impressive attention to detail.
Manhattan premiered exclusively in the UK on BT’s AMC on Tuesday January 5th, at 9pm and will run for 13 episodes.