Genre: TV Pilot – Drama
Premise: A look at the people who created the world’s first atomic bomb, within the top secret 1944 program known as, “The Manhattan Project.”
About: Sam Shaw was a writer on Showtime’s Masters of Sex. When WGN America read his pilot script for “Manhattan,” they dropped everything and immediately ordered 13 episodes. This is another reason why writers are falling in love with TV. Even the old pilot paradigm is changing, leading to more “straight-to-series” orders, which can turn a “nobody” writer into a somebody overnight. That’s the kind of thing that used to happen back in the feature world in the 90s.
Writer: Sam Shaw
Details: 69 pages (really? From a Masters of Sex writer?)
I don’t know what I should feel about the movie business currently. On the one hand, global box office is heating up which would imply a healthy future for cinema. On the other, it’s looking more creatively bankrupt every week. Godzilla looked like a movie desperate to bust out of a committee-driven narrative. Besides a few fun flourishes, it was about as assembly-line as it gets.
It’s almost every week these days that a new writer or director or actor comes out and says, “TV is sooooo much better than movies.” In one of John Favreau’s recent “Chef” interviews, he claimed to be bored when he goes to the movies these days because “I know everything that’s going to happen.” Watching stuff like Game of Thrones, now, is enthralling to him, because he has no idea where the story’s going next. That’s becoming less and less true at the theater.
Halle Berry, promoting her new CBS show, Extant, says all the actors are talking about how the exciting stuff is in television now, and more and more are coming over as a result. Is it true that Brad Pitt is being signed up for the next season of HBO’s True Detective? Cause if Brad Pitt is coming over to TV, you know something’s missing on the film end.
I’m not saying that movies are boring audiences out of the theater. Hollywood’s proven that even with subpar scripts, they can get audiences to show up. What Hollywood needs to worry about is all their talent fleeing. If more and more writers move to television, that means worse and worse scripts, and there will come a point where even Middle America says, “Dude, that is stupid.” And when that moment comes, it might be too late to right the ship.
So if Hollywood wants to continue to thrive, they might want to entice writers back with more creative freedom. Maybe not giving them free reign on a blockbuster or anything ridiculous like that. But giving them free reign on something.
Which brings us to Manhattan, a prestige period show that’ll allow WGN America to play more dress-up. Let’s see if it takes full advantage of its creative freedom and gives us something great.
It’s spring 1944, towards the end of World War 2. We’re in the middle of the Los Alamos desert, where an impromptu city has been created. Geniuses are coming in from all over the country to participate in an exciting endeavor, despite none of them knowing what that mysterious endeavor is.
Although it’s hard to pinpoint a protagonist in this somewhat choppy pilot, there are two men who share the majority of the screen time. 42 year-old Frank Winter, one of the more prominent scientists in the city, and Charlie Bell, a young Jewish man with a 180 IQ and a photographic memory. Charlie just showed up yesterday and, like many others, is trying to figure out what this is all about.
What follows is a lot of West Wing-type scenes where we speed through halls of the facility, catching glimpses of bomb diagrams and meeting new scientists and soldiers. We meet so many people in Manhattan (sometimes four at a time), that unless you’re keeping score with a notepad, chances are you won’t remember any of them.
Eventually there’s an indication that someone may be a spy for the Germans, with the military police believing it might be Frank, but there’s zero evidence to indicate that this is even remotely true and the thread dies out quickly.
Meanwhile, back at his new homestead (a military style pre-fabricated home in the desert), Charlie must fight his wife, who’s flabbergasted as to why he would ever want to be here. Her father has a cushy job for him back in New York, where they can raise their twins in a normal environment like everyone else. Charlie wants to be part of something bigger though, and the Manhattan Project is just that.
Eventually Frank gets Charlie and five others together and lets them know that the bomb they’re making is unstable, and if they don’t figure out how to stabilize it soon, the Germans are going to beat them in the race, and bye-bye goes freedom forever. These 7 men are the smartest in the United States. So if anyone’s going to figure out how to put this bomb together, it’s going to be them.
Manhattan, sadly, just isn’t very interesting. The big issue is that there’s zero drama. What I mean is that there’s no attempt to create problems that de-stabilize the characters’ world and force them to act. Look at Lost. A plane crashes (problem). They need to find everyone who’s still alive then figure out a way off the island.
Breaking Bad. Walter White gets cancer (problem). He must figure out how to support his family after he’s gone. Walking Dead. A zombie apocalypse breaks out (problem). Everyone must figure out how to survive.
I kept waiting for some problem in Manhattan so that the drama could begin, so that the characters could start acting, but it never happened. This was more of a straight-forward setup of the project and all the characters involved. And you know what happens when you give the audience a straight-forward setup? Boredom.
There were some tiny attempts at drama. The military police think Frank might be a spy, but that notion is squashed so quickly they might as well have not even included it. If I’m going to invest in a show, I don’t want people who MIGHT be spies. I want people who ARE spies! I might even want one of my leads to be a spy. Now we have some dramatic irony, some suspense. Some drama!
That’s the problem with Manhattan. I kept waiting for drama to show up but all I got was setup. Setup of the location, setup of the facility, setup of the characters. Yes, you have to set up your characters in your pilot, but if that’s ALL you’re doing – if you’re not telling a story while you’re doing it – it’s snooze-central.
In Breaking Bad, we meet Walter and his family. Then he gets cancer. Then he has to start acting. Now we have shit happening! We never had “shit happening” in Manhattan.
Now keep in mind, this is coming from someone who said that nothing happened in the pilot for True Detective. One of the big differences between movies and TV that sometimes trips me up is that TV is more about the characters. Hitting plot points or throwing in plot twists isn’t as important. So maybe that’s playing into my assessment here.
Then again, I’ve been watching Walking Dead this past week and even though it’s character-driven, there’s a hell of a lot going on between those characters. I mean in the pilot, we find out that Shane and Rick’s wife have hooked up after assuming Rick was dead, leading to all sorts of drama once he makes it back to the group. There’s none of that in Manhattan. It’s all very dry and ordered and “this is our world and these are the people in our world and that’s all we’re going to tell you.”
This probably would’ve worked better if new scientists showed up to the project and were told in the teaser or the end of Act 1 that “everything the project has worked on for the past six months has been proven wrong.” They need to start over. They’re now 6 months behind the Germans. These 7 men are in charge of pulling off a miracle. What upset me was that something similar to this happens towards the end of the script, but it’s such a subtle scene that there’s no importance attached to it. This needs to be the show! Thing are falling apart and these men were brought in to be the saviors.
Regardless of that, Manhattan needs a lot more drama and a lot more personality. It felt too much like the History Channel version of this idea.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Remember that a PROBLEM injects PURPOSE into the characters – like I pointed out with Lost, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead. Even in WGN’s other show, Salem, a problem is introduced into the city – witches. Now our characters must deal with it. The best way to go about writing a TV show, in my opinion, is to find some situation/world/idea that excites you, and then introduce a problem into that world that forces your characters to act. Without that, I don’t think you can write an exciting pilot.