Sometime it can be illuminating watching the ads for a program and extrapolating from them to who the marketers think I, the viewer, actually am. For example, when I have a doctor’s appointment, my doctor’s waiting room runs continuous daytime TV. I notice all the ads are for the treatment of various illnesses and injuries as well as the lawyers who will help you seek compensation for such. This even when the content seems targeted to a different audience. Of course, who is home watching daytime TV in the mid-afternoon? The elderly, the chronically ill, the seriously injured, plus the occasional home-sick-in-front-of-the-TV outlier.
Likewise, when renting a movie on DVD, many contain trailers. Sometimes I know I’ve made the wrong choice in film selection when I’m treated to a series of trailers for movies I know I would never watch. The Dark Tower springs to mind. (If you haven’t seen it, don’t bother).
I’ve just started in with the TV series Manhattan. This is a piece of “original programming” created by what was first a Chicago broadcast station (channel 9) and then became one of the early cable TV “superstations” (a local channel shown nationally via cable. Think also Turner’s TBS) called WGN America. Another example of their original program is the reimagining of the Salem witch trials in the TV series Salem.
The previews at the beginning of the DVD inexplicably starts with an advertisement for Manhattan itself. The second ad is general branding for the production company, and the third for that same company’s DVD packaging of Mad Men. The next ad was for a History Channel miniseries called Sons of Liberty. This was a rather unpleasant production that revolved around a spiced up version of the interpersonal drama of the American Revolution. It portrayed the founding fathers in contemporary cool, engaging in Assassin’s Creed style rooftop leaping. I tried to enjoy it, but couldn’t make it past the first of three installments.
The common theme here might have had me worried, if I wasn’t already sold on the series by my reading before I rented. Manhattan received high praise from the critics and is ranked highly (for me at least) on what remains of Netfix’s ranking system. Extracting a common theme from the previews, these are all period-dramas and fairly stylized ones at that. Criticism of Salem suggests that the drama is fully intended to overshadow the history.
So, too, with my initial impressions of Manhattan. The actors are mostly twenty-teen looking, rather than 1943. The dialog is obviously written with the modern world in mind. In a particularly glaring anachronisms, scientists wonder about the post-war world where The Soviet Union, China and “the Shah of Iran” become nuclear powers.
Similarly, the words and phrases simply seem out of place with the times, with half-a-dozen per episode that are probably (although I can’t know for sure) too new for use during the Second World War. It’s a artistic decision that I can actually accept. The choice comes down to whether your dialog sounds jarringly out of place to the modern ear or, sounding more natural, doesn’t really match the period. The decision to modernize is easier to swallow when you’re modern British-English is standing in for Renaissance Italian. It takes some patience when it is the dialect of our grandfathers.
Likewise the topics, ranging from the ineptitude of government bureaucracy to exploring bi-sexuality and drugs are clearly talking about today and not the issues of 1944. I’m far more interested in the technical plot line, pitting the Thin Man and Fat Man design teams against each other. Thin Man has the political backing to have all the resources where as Fat Man is pushed by a skeleton team driven by a brilliant but out-of-favor scientist. Given the rest of the show, I don’t imagine there is much “reality” in the dramatization of the physics, but it is why I continue watching the show.
The historically-based drama is, admittedly, created within the context of the Manhattan project, but not actually trying to follow actual historical events or individuals. One rare exception is the inclusion of Robert Oppenheimer, with the actor uncannily resembling the real man. When I saw him first on the screen I actually thought the portrayal was way over the top. Having looked at more pictures of him and read about his personality, I’m no longer quite so sure. We also have a brief appearance by Niels Bohr, who very much resembles the actor who played him in The Heavy Water War. The rest of the characters are largely created out of whole cloth.
The show has met with critical acclaim. While I would not call the show bad, the flaws in its presentation of history prevent me from labeling it “great.” It is interesting that the actual award won by the show is for the main title design. It is quite a main title, mixing engineering sketches, physics drawings, and illustrations of family life.
Praise for the show seems to be focused on the technical details, like acting and set design, and ignores the technical details, the physics. One internet review refers to it as a Mad Men set at Los Alamos. I suppose that is the way to watch it. We never worried, while enjoying Mad Men that there really never was a historical counterpart to the ad agency Stirling and Cooper. So should we ignore that Frank Winter, Charlie Isaacs, and that fat guy who snorted up the plutonium simply never existed.