Manhattan presents something of a conundrum. The World War II period piece is fully realized from a production design standpoint. The large cast, which includes the likes of John Benjamin Hickey (The Big C), Olivia Williams, Ashley Zukerman (Australia's The Code), Rachel Brosnahan (an Emmy nominee for House of Cards), and William Petersen, is consistently riveting. The whole drama plays out against a historical backdrop that depicts one of the defining events of humankind: the creation of the world's first atomic weapon. The first season spun into a number of soapy tangents as it mixed factual events and figures (including Daniel London's enigmatic turn as Professor J. Robert Oppenheimer) with pure invention.
As we get into season two, it becomes increasingly clear that series creator Sam Shaw really only intended the actual Manhattan Project to be a loose backdrop over which to hang a whole slew of fantasy. Not dragons-and-sorcery fantasy obviously, but still something that goes far beyond artistic license. London is back for a handful of appearances as Oppenheimer, still a shadowy presence, but season two ends up unraveling into an over-baked piece of sensationalist fiction that arguably does more harm than good. Do we need such a highly-fictionalized piece of "historical" drama out there, tempting viewers to view believe the hyped-up fake stuff over the reality?
Personally, I'm in two minds because as a pure genre piece, Manhattan is a relatively engrossing drama. Hickey's central character Frank Winter is missing at the season's outset. Beginning with the season premiere, Manhattan plays with a fractured timeline that speeds us right to the eve of the Trinity test and then quickly plunges us back over a year earlier. As the espionage and duplicity thickens the plot, there are inevitably threads left untied. The series' ratings dipped, leading to a cancellation, and this is what we're left with. Despite mostly positive critical response, public awareness of Manhattan remained quite low (which means it's pretty doubtful anyone will wind up confusing this fictionalized take for reality after all). If you already committed the time to season one, season two is worth a look. If you aren't already vested in Manhattan at all, it's difficult to recommend.