Blu-ray Review: Manhattan: Season One

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The WGN America original series Manhattan tells a largely fictionalized account of the Manhattan Project, the infamous U.S. operation that resulted in the first atomic bomb. The complete first season (13 episodes) is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. Since the series has been greenlit for a second season, now’s the time to get caught up if you missed Manhattan when it originally aired between July and October of 2014. It’s an involving soap opera, but it’s a bit frustrating. While it’s only natural that artistic liberties would be taken to craft fully-developed characters, it’s a bit weird that the show’s creator Sam Shaw would play quite this fast and loose with facts.

Manhattan Olivia Williams.pngWhether they’re playing real-life figures, composites, or complete fabrications, the cast is universally strong. John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams anchor the show as husband and wife Drs. Frank and Liza Winter. Frank Winter (based on Seth Neddermeyer) is leading one of two competing groups working feverishly to deliver a working A-bomb. He and Liza (a botanist who becomes increasingly, and justifiably, concerned about possible contamination by all the radioactive materials being handled) live with thousands of other military and civilian personnel at a “town” that doesn’t officially exist. Los Alamos operates in the middle of the New Mexican desert, cut off from contact with everything around them.

The events of season one are set a couple years prior to the actual Trinity nuclear test. Watching Manhattan, you’d think the U.S. government had assembled the most emotionally unstable group of people possible. The Los Alamos base/town is overrun by rampant prostitution, drug use, extramarital affairs, secret (and, for the era, quite dangerous) gay relationships, murder, suicide, not to mention double- and triple-crossing at every level. It makes for an engaging thriller, but sometimes the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach results in an sense of overload.

Manhattan cover (238x280).jpgDaniel Stern is initially nearly unrecognizable as the wiry-bearded Dr. Glen Babbit, who oversees the teams of scientists. He’s quite good as the perpetually under-suspicion Babbit. As the shadowy scientific director J. Robert Oppenheimer, Daniel London brings the enigmatic feel of a David Lynch villain to his characterization. Some of the subplots, especially one involving a lesbian affair between Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), wife of plagiarist scientist Dr. Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), and switchboard operator Elodie (Carole Weyers), feel like clutter. When one of Winter’s team members, Fritz (Michael Chernus), inadvertently ingests plutonium, it results in nothing of consequence. Though the show is certainly watchable, its multitude of subplots and side characters begins to feel cumbersome and, at times, even confusing.

Lionsgate’s Blu-ray offers a great audio/visual presentation, delivering a sharp image and suitably expansive DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix. The series’ cinematography favors a particularly subdued palette, with desaturated colors. Nowhere is this aesthetic more apparent than the outdoor desert shots, which are quite beautifully rendered (the clear blue skies are nearly halfway to a grayish pallor). The audio goes a long way toward establishing the series’ fever-pitch paranoia, with throbbing LFE effects and the often-pulsating score by Jónsi & Alex.

Manhattan Frank Winters.pngFor a show rooted in historical fact, it’s a bit disappointing that there isn’t more factual context offered by the special features. One episode on each of the three discs features an audio commentary (the participants vary). There are four featurettes (totaling about 45 minutes) that shed a bit of light on the production of the show itself. “Ground Zero: Bringing the Bomb to the Screen” is a promotional-oriented ‘making of.’ “P.O. Box 1663: Creating a City That Didn't Exist” and “Recreating an Era: Manhattan Costume Design” focus on the technical aspects of crafting the series. "Now I Am Become Death” is the only stab at historical context, providing a brief overview of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s career.

It’s no spoiler to say that by the end of Manhattan: Season One, we’re nowhere near the actual completion of a working bomb. Hopefully season two will take a more streamlined approach, focusing more specifically on the work being done by the scientists and less on the personal lives of those around them.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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