Field Notes: MANH(A)TTAN Season 2

The eminent cosmologist Sean Carroll once said, “In physics, if you haven’t contributed anything by the time you’re 50, you’re through. In acting, you only get better with age.”

Indeed, acting is a discipline where the master practitioners continue to evolve and deepen as time passes, and, like physics, it’s a field where upstart crows look to those more experienced for guidance and inspiration. In Los Angeles, the SAG Foundation works tirelessly to provide these kinds of opportunities to working actors. Nearly every night of the week, the Conversations Program offers screenings of films and television shows followed by Q&As with well-known actors who reflect on personal experiences and share valuable insights into the craft.

This past Tuesday, July 28, I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of the second episode of the upcoming second season of Manh(a)ttan, WGN America’s first scripted television series, followed by a talk back with five of the principal cast members. All of the actors expressed their adoration for the show–its creator Sam Shaw, director/EP Tommy Schlamme, and casting director Jeanie Bacharach who assembled this tightly knit and amiable troupe of players. And the writing! The writing, they said, makes all the difference. “It’s just better,” lauded international star Katja Herbers, who plays the lone female physicist, Helen Fisher, on the show. The consummate Tony Award winner John Benjamin Hickey (who plays implosion team leader Frank Winter on the show and upon whom the screened episode focused) credits Schlamme with the strength of the ensemble. Hickey said that Schalmme told WGN America that no actors would be replaced at the table read, and that security gave the actors the safe space in which they could bring this world to life.

The question remains: Why is Manh(a)ttan the best show you’re not watching? The answer: People mistakenly think it’s a show about science. But, as the logline for the show makes clear, it is the characters caught in this pivotal moment in history who keep Fanhattans (yes, they have a name!) watching week after week:

Set against the backdrop of the greatest race against time in the history of science — the mission to build the world’s first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, N.M. — WGN America’s Manh(a)ttan follows the project’s brilliant but flawed scientists and their families as they attempt to co-exist in a world where secrets and lies infiltrate every aspect of their lives.

What is something new that you learned?
I learned that doe eyed heartthrob Ashley Zukerman delved in the world of physics in order to create his character, physicist Charlie Isaacs. He said you don’t need to fully understand the physics to understand the conflict and challenges these characters face, but you should know enough to be able to look at a chalkboard of equations and at least appear to look like you know what you’re looking at. That, my friends, is acting.

What story did you encounter that captured your imagination?
All of the actors spoke about the benefits of working on location on the fully realized sets where the series is filmed near Santa Fe, New Mexico. They actually work close to where the real Manhattan Project came to life, and they agreed that the location brings a certain cinéma vérité to the whole production. The painstaking accuracy of the artistic design permeates every ounce of their process from the dust on their toothbrushes to their meticulous period costumes. Even the desert light itself becomes a character in this story. This season “the gadget” makes its appearance, and it is sure to lend yet another indelible layer to this already visually consuming show.

I would love to see a behind-the-scenes doc about this show. A fun anecdote told Tuesday night by the lovely Emmy nominee Rachel Brosnahan (who plays whip smart housewife Abby Isaacs) recounted how she brought her mother to marvel at the 10 acre set, but, as she was dressed in street clothes, a security guard intercepted her… he didn’t recognize her at all sans apron and mary janes. Like the real Los Alamos, the world of this TV show is removed, shielded by the austere desert itself. All the actors agreed, however, their secluded experience in that environment brought them together as a nuclear family. Minus the WMD.

What question did you leave with? What do you now want to know about or explore further?
I would love to know how Sam Shaw conceived the full arc of the show. The Manhattan Project came to an end; did he see an end for the show and the fascinating collection of characters he has created to tell this unique and understandably controversial American story?

If there were a part of this experience that you could bring to life around you, what would it be?
Without hesitation, I would gladly jump into the shoes of anyone involved in this terrific production. The actors continually expressed how much they believe in the show and how their initial reactions to the script were so strong, they knew they wanted to be a part of it immediately. Moderator Sam Rubin of KTLA asked the cast how working on the show is different than working on a project they don’t believe in–an underwear commercial perhaps. Herbers’ response spoke the most to me. She said that actors have to give of themselves to do the work they do, and that’s much easier in some jobs than in others: “Acting, at least for me, is very vulnerable. So if you’re doing it for an underwear commercial, I think you can get bruised.” Along with the rest of the cast, and with remarkable candor, she commended the creators and production team of Manh(a)ttan for creating a working environment that was nearly nonpareil.

How wonderful, too, that this show can speak to so much of our humanity. Christopher Denham–who plays Jim Meeks, physicist/mole inside the American race to the bomb–reminded us all of poet-philosopher George Santayana’s admonition: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Golden Age of Television allows for shows likeManh(a)ttan on unconventional networks like WGN America to explore our shared history and begs for us to examine not just the past but its current ramifications. The power of art to ask these questions understandably draws actors to projects like this show.

Write a headline for your experience today.
“Manh(a)ttan Season 2 Starts with a Bang.” (My apologies to Jennifer Ouelette from whom I borrowed this. She attended the press junket in Santa Fe a few weeks ago, so I was  conferring with her before and after the screening.)

How do you imagine this experience would be 20 years in the future?
Just as you’ll watch the SAG Foundation cast talkback on YouTube, I imagine that 20 years in the future, much of what we do will be virtual interaction. And that saddens me a little. Many of us watch TV in degrees of isolation, on our tiny phones alone in our bedrooms. What I love about attending SAG Foundation events is the ability to be in the room, sharing laughter or a moment of shock, and breathing the same air as the artists I admire. To feel the energy of the room when the unexpected happens in a scene–that is something that (at least for me) until recently I’d never experienced with television. Films, yes, but never episodic TV. I love the group energy present in screenings like this. I hope we can maintain that human connection even as our world becomes increasingly technologically isolating. There’s no suitable replacement for person-to-person connection. At least for now.


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