A terrible thing about the modern era of television isn’t just the sheer number of great shows that frequently fall through the cracks on services like Netflix, but great shows that are overlooked because people simply don’t know where to find them. Manhattan was one of those shows, a gem of the mid-2010s twilight of TV’s second so-called golden age. It was a time when streaming TV was just getting started and there already seemed to be too many shows, many of them great. Breaking Bad had ended and Mad Men was winding down, people still liked Game of Thrones, and exciting, buzzy shows like Mr. Robot and The Americans were premiering all the time.
This included Manhattan, but the series went largely unnoticed in part because of its network home. The show aired on the now-defunct WGN America as its second scripted drama after the supernatural horror series Salem, an attempt to rub shoulders with the acclaimed lineups boasted by AMC, FX, and HBO at the time. In some regards, it was successful: contemporary reviews championed the show as equally worthy of attention as those Emmy-winning dramas. However, the viewers never came, and Manhattan ended after two seasons.
But what wonderfully rich seasons they were; 23 episodes that are ironically easier to watch now than they were when they aired, since the entire series is currently streaming for free on Tubi and Freevee.
The perfect follow-up to Oppenheimer, Manhattan follows the scientists of the Manhattan Project and their families in Los Alamos, New Mexico, as work on the atomic bomb begins in earnest. A dazzling work of historical fiction, the series follows a largely fictional cast that intersects with the history of the project, telling smaller, more personal stories against the most dramatic of backdrops. Manhattan takes the history of the Manhattan Project and stops to consider everything through its characters’ journeys.
Manhattan isn’t necessarily about The Bomb, but about people: It treats the Manhattan Project as a community like any other, with a social pecking order, haves and have-nots, family drama, and moral panics. The radioactive “Gadget,” as The Bomb is called, is just there to supercharge the dramatic tension. Plenty of people hide things from their loved ones, but what about Charlie (Ashley Zukerman) and Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) Isaacs, the newest arrivals in Los Alamos? What’s it like to suddenly be thrust into a ramshackle desert town and not know why, to try and lay claim to some sense of normalcy in the most abnormal circumstances? And what happens when personal secrets get entangled with government ones?
Each episode of the series is rich with questions like this, using its setting to bring simmering social conflicts to a boil. An early tragic plotline follows Dr. Sid Liao (Eddie Shin), the only Chinese American scientist on his team who, after the smallest breach in security protocol, is immediately subjected to the most extreme racial and political prejudices, as all the camaraderie and work he did amounts to nothing once those in charge are given the flimsiest reason to accuse him of treason. In Manhattan, everyone plays at normalcy even though the town they live in doesn’t exist, their plumbing barely works, and no one has a complete understanding of why they’re there. It seems like a foolish delusion, especially when it is frequently ready to fall apart.
Creator Sam Shaw and the Manhattan writers room proved themselves to be masters of story economy, creating a version of Los Alamos where all of these things were present all of the time, a grouping of people as unstable as the uranium the scientists built their terrible weapon with. This is why the show stands up to reappraisal even for those who may not vibe with Christopher Nolan’s epic about some of the same events. It’s a story about how volatile any of us could be — a study of the fission of atoms, and people.