There was a time, not too long ago, when summer was a rerun-laden, notoriously terrible time for television. But this summer's schedule is just as packed as the rest of the year. Sundance TV's Rectify and Showtime's Masters of Sex are in the middle of extremely strong sophomore seasons. The Killing will debut its final season on Netflix next week. HBO has thrown its considerable weight behind The Leftovers, and FX is tackling horror with The Strain.
Into those crowded waters wades Manhattan, an ambitious period drama debuting on WGN America, a network that broke onto the original TV drama scene earlier this year with the loopy horror series Salem. Manhattan feels more like a statement of purpose: a smart, ambitious, beautifully realized drama that could just as easily have ended up on HBO or AMC.
In both style and tone, Manhattan most closely resembles AMC's Mad Men. The two series even come with similarly misleading titles; just as Mad Men isn't about asylum inmates or serial killers, Manhattan takes place nearly 2,000 miles away from New York City.
Manhattan begins in 1943, more than two years before the United States drops the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, as a group of scientists, military officials, and researchers collaborate on the Manhattan Project. The series begins with Charlie and Abby Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman and Rachel Brosnahan), who have moved to New Mexico for a job opportunity so secretive that Charlie doesn't even know about it yet. But just when it seems like we've met our protagonist, Manhattan pivots to another man: Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), a short-tempered scientist convinced that his atomic bomb prototype is the key to winning the war.
Manhattan makes a lot of smart choices in its first two hours. The series cultivates a thick layer of paranoia; scientists working on competing prototypes are viciously competitive, and even those on the same team are justly skeptical of their partners. The military brass lie to the scientists, and the scientists lie to their spouses, as the uncomfortably close quarters of the desert community become a high-intensity pressure cooker. And while Manhattan makes sure that viewers know, to the day, how much longer it will be until the United States drops the bomb, the characters don't have that luxury; they live in ever-present fear that another country will beat them to the punch, turning the tide of the war before the United States can do anything about it.
Manhattan also makes some rookie mistakes; most notably, the end of the second episode unceremoniously severs a plot line that was just beginning to get interesting. But all told, this is an impressively assured debut for a drama, built by a creative team that includes reliable talents like writer-showrunner Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) and producer-director Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing). In theory, Manhattan has everything it needs to become TV's next big prestige drama. But the show has one last challenge to overcome: Everything else on TV.
Five years ago, Manhattan would have been widely hailed as one of the most promising debuts on television. But today, it enters a field that is so insanely crowded that difficult choices will need to be made. I recommend Manhattan. But I also recommend Masters of Sex and The Leftovers, which also air on Sunday nights. If you didn't have time during their original runs, I recommend catching up on Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Hannibal, which came back stronger than ever. And before you fall too far behind, I recommend getting hip to freshman dramas like Fargo and Penny Dreadful, which made a major impact despite the crowded television landscape.
The downside to TV's embarrassment of riches is that it's virtually impossible to keep up with everything that's worth watching — and at some point, viewers will need to decide what makes the list.