It would be all too easy to dismiss “Manhattan,” which premiered last night on WGN, as simply television’s latest attempt to craft a classy period drama. And while the series tells the story of the Manhattan Project with a bit too much soberness and sepia, the show stands out for its ability, shared with Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” to make scientific research compelling.
It is not as if scientists or innovators are uncommon figures on television. Emergency room doctors, medical technicians, coroners and forensic pathologists are incredibly common pop cultural characters, to the point that they influence how juries deliberate. There are currently two shows on the air, “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Silicon Valley,” that trace, respectively, the personal computing revolution and the current tech boom.
But “Manhattan” and “Masters of Sex” feel different from these shows because their choice of subject matter is different. Rather than treating science and technology as if the most important thing they can do is determine the cause of a crime or save us a few minutes of trouble, these shows capture a moment when people worked very hard and actually managed to change the world.
That distinction is summed up well by author Steven Johnson, who has his own nonfiction series, “How We Got to Now,” coming to PBS on Oct. 15. In that series, Johnson will explore advances such as the invention of modern sewer systems, artificial refrigeration and a standardized time-zone system.
“Innovation is a very trendy word in society right now, but so much of the focus of it right now is directed towards the Silicon Valley and, you know, who is going to be the next Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs and who is going to make the next great smartphone app,” Johnson said. “But what we are trying to do with this show is remind people that there is a different kind of innovation out there that all of our lives benefit from, which is solving problems like how do you get clean drinking water to big, dense, urban centers?”
“Manhattan” and “Masters of Sex” take place at moments when both sorts of developments were happening at once.
“Someone invented pie crust in a box? How is that not on the cover of the New York Times?” jokes “Manhattan’s” Liza Winter (Olivia Williams), the wife of scientist Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) and a highly educated scientist in her own right, as she shops in the Los Alamos compound grocery.
Security measures mean that Liza and the other scientists’ wives cannot know what their husbands are working on. Instead, they accustom themselves to the explosions from mysterious tests and speculate about submarine research. Liza, a botanist, notices that some of the chrysanthemums in her patchy, dry little garden are blooming a rusty, bloody red rather than white.
Their husbands push to the limits of their imaginations in trying to comprehend the implications of their work. Winter works himself ragged while listening to broadcasts of the names missing in action, but is tormented by nightmares of Liza and his daughter vanishing in the bomb’s shock wave. Reed Akley (David Harbour) sells a young recruit on the project by telling him that “You can watch the apple fall with Newton,” but becomes concerned when the new addition to the team develops ethical doubts about the prospect of shepherding the bomb into the world.
If “Manhattan” depicts a community drawn together and into competition with each other by the prospect of changing the world and struggling with the implications of their work, “Masters of Sex” portrays the struggle to create that community in the first place.
Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) is a visionary about matters of human sexuality but lacks the charm and tact to make that radical dream palatable, much less comprehensible, to the academic community he depends on for funding. A powerful connection blossoms between him and secretary-turned-researcher Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) because she can understand him. Johnson is living the sexually liberated life Masters dreams of, for others, if not for himself.
“Manhattan” could benefit from some of the restraint and humor that “Masters of Sex” uses to such good effect. But both shows are charming because of a shared project. They tell us stories about moments when science could change the way we live, rather than simply determine how we die.