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Series / Manhattan

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Nuclear. Family.
"...You're building an atom bomb."
Charlie Isaacs

Manhattan is a series for WGN America and airing on Hulu. Set in World War II, 1943, at the time of the Manhattan Project but using a group of mostly fictional characters, the series focuses on a New Mexico town the outside world knows nothing about. The federal government tells the scientists only what they need to know, while the scientists keep secrets from their families.

After running for two seasons, it was cancelled on February 3, 2016.

Not to be confused with the Woody Allen film.

Tropes in Manhattan

  • Acceptable Breaks from Reality: Callie Winter, singing with her fellow girl scouts, sneaks away with Cole Dunlavey before the songs are even over. This goes unnoticed by the audience and the scout leader. It's good for their story, showing them sneaking off, but in reality Callie leaving the group mid-song and her absence would be brazenly obvious and noticed by the song leader and the audience.
  • Alternate History: For people familiar with the actual Manhattan Project, the series is this. The broad strokes of the Manhattan Project and World War II seem to all be correct, but different people were involved in the details in this timeline. The policies regarding the project are also altered to reflect modern interpretations of military policy and government secrecy.
  • Anxiety Dreams:
    • Frank has one in the pilot, where he dreams of his wife and daughter calmly walking out their door as a nuclear fireball engulfs them.
    • Charlie Isaacs imagines Reed Akley dressing him down and denigrating his efforts to make sure the Manhattan Project works, after telling Reed about the problem with reactor-bred plutonium.
  • Artistic License – History: At one point, Reed Akley says "Truman will be sworn in...", but it's circa 1943 in the show. Truman wasn't the Vice-President until 1945.
  • Artistic License – Physics: The terminology used to describe the Tennessee reactor's "danger condition" is a bit too modern - such as 'meltdown'note , 'nuclear reactor'note , etc. In the 1940s the properties of reactors were only just beginning to be understood, and some of the cavalierness of the Army about disregarding the potential risks of criticality incidents seems to have been introduced for dramatic purposes. However, there was a real-life incident of xenon-135 'poisoning', on which the fictional portrayal is based.
  • Attempted Rape: Tom Lancefield forces himself on Abby Isaacs, and likely would have had her clothes off if his wife hadn't been in the house as well and would return to the dining table any moment.
  • Badass Boast: In March 1944, with no visible proof of whether such an ambitious goal can be met, Charlie Isaacs declares, "On July 4th, 1945, we're going to put on the biggest firework show since the Book of Genesis." The actual Trinity atom bomb test occurred on July 16th, 1945.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Frank's daughter Callie, although she's probably better-read than most.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer:
    • Frank Winter. He's obviously brilliant, but he has propounded some rather crackpot ideas in the past and so his attempts to prove the implosion design will be more efficient foundered badly through the first half of the first season. As one example of his brilliance, he covertly writes on Charlie's blackboard the correct form of the equation for the energy-dependent diffusion behavior of neutrons (an equation important for a problem Charlie has to solve). But then, in the same episode, he antagonizes the base commander to the point where he's firmly on the guy's crud list.
    • Niels Bohr had a bit of a reputation for this in real life.
  • Character Death: Sid Liao and Reed Akley die in Season 1. In Season 2, Mr. Fisher/Occam is murdered by Jim Meeks's contact while interrogating Meeks, while Nora murders Fritz's wife Jeannie to keep her silent when she figures out that Jim is a spy.
  • Classified Information: Figures strongly into the story. The scientists can't even tell their wives what they are doing, and the different groups are forbidden from collaborating with each other to maintain compartmentalization.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Occam, the interrogator, sees conspiracies everywhere he looks, even stating such. He's right, but way off the mark as to who is involved.
  • Dark Secret:
    • Babbit, despite being married, is secretly gay, and the polygraph official is hinted as being gay as well after Babbit pointedly makes reference to a man they "know in common".
    • Charlie Isaacs has been concealing the fact that he essentially appropriated part of another person's paper without proper attribution to construct his line of reasoning in his seminal paper.
    • Crosley is revealed to have fled England for the USA before the war because he'd slept with the daughter of one of his mentors, and wouldn't marry her after he got her pregnant.
    • Liza Winter spent some time in an insane asylum. Rex knows about it, but what it was for has not been revealed.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Helen Prins
  • Dead Person Conversation: Frank has several hallucinations of Sid Liao, due to a guilty conscience.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Dr. Theodore Sinclair, a black nuclear physicist, has been shown to be relegated to fetcher-and-carrier for a white man who knows little about nuclear physics compared to him.
    • When Abby tells Charlie that Tom Lancefield sexually assaulted her by groping her and attempting to get his hands under her skirt, he brushes it off with "men will be men". He was actually biding his time until he could beat the shit out of Lancefield and get away with it.
    • Multiple pregnant women are seen smoking and drinking alcohol.
  • Dirty Communist:
    • Babbit is suspected of being one because he knew a physicist who defected to the Soviet Union. He turns out to have had a romantic relationship with him, but turned down an opportunity to defect with him.
    • A number of times characters make it clear they believe that once the war is over Russia will become the enemy.
  • Driven to Suicide
    • Reed Akley shoots himself in "The Gun Model"
    • Oppenheimer's mistress Jean kills herself after Abby (pretending to be Kitty Oppenheimer) tells her Oppenheimer will never see her again.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Frank has one in "The Understudy"
  • Fanservice: A scene in the pilot has a woman changing clothes with her window open. This becomes foreshadowing.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Unless history in the show goes completely Off the Rails, the Manhattan Project will succeed in delivering a working atomic bomb (several, in fact) in 1945, bringing about a sudden end to the war. The only question is how much of the cast will still be around when they do.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Occam, the shady interrogator.
  • Good with Numbers:
    • Charlie Isaacs only needs to take a short look at a wall of equations before he utters the conclusion that the US government is building an atom bomb.
    • The "computers", a group of women who crunch the numbers for complicated mathematical equations.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Abby gets rather irritated when she learns that Charlie is on a work trip with a woman, which he didn’t tell her.
  • Headbutting Heroes: The different teams are working towards the same goal but in different ways, which leads to friction. Winter, especially, butts heads with almost everyone.
  • Heroic BSoD: PFC Dunlavy isn't really firing on all cylinders after shooting Sid Liao
  • House Wife: Understandably, most women are housewives in the series, Abby and Liza among them.
  • Intimate Healing: A WAC invites PFC Dunlavy into her house for this, being attracted to him due to the stories floating around the base about his alleged heroism in shooting a "spy". However, he's been suffering from a form of PTSD over it.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Frank Winter's abrasiveness tends to hide the fact that he does care about the people who work for him.
    • Charlie Isaacs's occasional arrogance and seeming uncaringness has hidden things he's done which shows he does give a damn, such as utterly destroying Lancefield's career in revenge for Lancefield's attempted rape of his wife.
  • Lost My Appetite: Oppenheimer uses this line when the spyhunter approaches him during breakfast.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Paul/Helen/Charlie/Abby/Elodie.
  • Love Hurts: There are not many stable, happy relationships in the series.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Averted. The rising number of dead American soldiers is consistently listed as a reason they have to build this bomb fast.
    • Averted again in "The Second Coming", when news of the Holocaust starts to trickle in. Abby mentions that over a million people in Minsk are missing, before she breaks down saying she doesn't even know how to imagine that many people.
  • Meaningful Echo: Segments of the dialog between Helen Prins and Charlie Isaacs are taken from the code phrases used when Enrico Fermi started up the first nuclear reactor in Chicago in 1942.
  • The Mentor: Glen, to Frank.
  • The Mole:
    • Reed Akley is alluded to be this in "The Gun Model" when we learn that he seems to have been deliberately slowing work on the bomb - and he seems to be lying to everyone about everything, culminating in being Driven to Suicide. It is not revealed whether he was working for the Soviets or the Nazis; either could have facilitated Charlie's and Abby's cousins being released from a war zone. It's also possible that he wasn't working for anyone and the prestige of the position went to his head until he realized too late that there was an unfixable problem with his design and made too many promises he couldn't keep.
    • As of the first season finale, the real culprit is revealed to be Meeks, who is later shown in "The Threshold" to be working for the Soviets. In Season 2 he's also joined by another mole, Nora.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The first words out of Private Dunlavy's mouth after he shoots Sid Liao are "What did I do?"
  • Nerds Are Virgins: One of the scientists in Frank's group is still a virgin. Helen tries to fix that by hooking him up with the local prostitutes, but he still doesn't sleep with them.
  • Nice Guy: Glen, Fritz and Sid.
  • Nonindicative Name: In universe, as in reality, while it was called "The Manhattan Project", the project was started in Manhattan, New York but in total very little of the project was done in New York - the name was just carried over to represent the whole project. This series takes place in New Mexico.
    • Related examples: The bomb itself was only ever to be called a "gadget", and the fissionable isotopes of uranium and plutonium were given names like "tube alloy".
  • Nuclear Family: The tagline for the series - a play on words because the family unit is tied up in the building of the first nuclear bomb.
  • Nuke 'em: The intention of the whole project. This was the first time in history this was ever done.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Fritz is testing the plutonium, and because in the 1940s its properties were not well-understood, he did not know that under certain conditions, it is pyrophoric in air. He accidentally causes it to "poof" into the air when he uncovers the heated sample, leading to the line below. It's later discovered he breathed in and swallowed the vaporized plutonium.
    Crosley: You misplaced a million dollars worth of plutonium-239?!
    • The Tennessee plutonium breeder reactor starts warming up even after it's been taken offline due to an unplanned shutdown. Charlie starts seriously considering that the reactor might explode and contaminate the town. It turns out that a fission product, iodine-135, decays into xenon-135, which swallows up neutronsnote . The resulting radioactive decay was generating the excess heat, so paradoxically, adding even more fuel rods solves the problem, by "burning up" the xenon-135 with the sudden burst of neutrons from the extra uraniumnote .
  • Pet the Dog: Crosley's letter to Sid Liao's wife. Of course, the military censors never let it get to her....
  • Politically Correct History: Averted for the most part.
  • The Quiet One: Frank.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Winter's team give off that vibe, especially compared to Akley's better-groomed, more homogeneous staff.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Colonel Cox, the base commander, of what we've seen of him so far.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Charlie, sick of the ribbing he's been getting over his mathematical work on the diffusion and transport of neutrons in a material, proceeds to correct everybody else's math on their boards, proving that he is legitimately smarter than them.
    • Frank dresses down a doctor whose specialty was obstetrics, pointing out that he's not qualified to treat cases of accidental radiation exposure (which in the 1930s and 1940s was still very much terra incognita in many respects).
    • Charlie imagines Reed Akley giving him a rather nasty and harsh one after he mentions the spontaneous fission problem with plutonium-240.
  • The Reveal: One episode opens with a scientist going to work - it turns out it's Heisenberg, head of the German nuclear program.
  • The Rival: Frank and Charlie start out in opposite teams and are very hostile to each other, but in the second half of the first season they join forces and even become, to some extent, Fire-Forged Friends.
  • Sexless Marriage: Frank and Liza's marriage is implied to be this.
  • Sex Starts, Story Stops: Charlie and Abby Isaacs, at times, find their sex drives peaking to the point of engaging in sex in some risky places. Narratively, though, the sex seems more about the Fanservice than anything else.
  • Scout-Out: Callie Winter is a Girl Scout but they never come out and say girl scouts. Not surprising, considering how she acts during the campfire.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: The manager of the breeder reactor in Tennessee gets General Leslie Groves himself to override Charles's and Helen's authority to delay commissioning of the plutonium breeder reactor.
  • Serious Business: In science, even in the middle of a war, if you're a plagiarist, you're toast. This is true in real life as well as in the show.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Frank Winter is a veteran of The War to End All Wars. This explains at least some of his over-the-top behavior.
  • Shout-Out: The record that's shown and heard playing during Charlie's atomic nightmare is "I Don't Want To Set the World on Fire" by The Ink Spots - the unofficial theme music of the Fallout series.
    • A couple to The Golden Age of Comic Books, especially DC Comics. Including a few of the scientists trying to discern just how high Superman can leap based on the radio show's intro and Fritz's girlfriend comparing his inhalation of plutonium to Jay Garrick's origin.note .
  • Smithical Marriage / Undercover as Lovers: Invoked by the US Army as a necessary cover identity for Charlie Isaacs and Helen Prins, who travelled to Tennessee to sign off on a breeder reactor to generate plutonium.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Helen is the only female working on the project.
  • Snark-to-Snark Combat: Watts, the soldier, arguing with Crosley, the physicist, on the walk back to Los Alamos.
    • Helen and Charlie engage in some, but it doesn't last too long as he slowly realizes he's in over his head.
  • The Stoic: Frank.
  • Straight Gay: Glen Babbit. It was, after all, the 1940s.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: Colonel Darrow, who takes over the base in season 2, is considerably less likeable and much more devious than Colonel Cox.
  • Un-Confession: Frank spills everything about the bomb... to his maid, who doesn't speak English.
    • Inverted in the first season finale.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The location and the Manhattan Project existed, but most characters you see did not. The writers openly acknowledge that the show will reference historical characters, but is not intended to maintain historical accuracy.
    • Niels Bohr did indeed visit Los Alamos, in 1943, and visited several more times over the next two years.
    • J. Robert Oppenheimer so far has been depicted as cold, aloof, and something of a Jerkass. In reality he was quite friendly and tender-hearted. He was the one who made arrangements for Richard Feynman's first wife, Arline, to stay in a hospital in Albuquerque while he was working on the Manhattan project.
    • The Manhattan project really did have a spy in their midst, Klaus Fuchs.
  • Wham Episode:
    • In-verse, in "The Second Coming". Charlie Isaacs realizes that reactor-bred plutonium will always contain a little bit of plutonium-240, which has a higher rate of spontaneous fission than plutonium-239note . Charlie is visibly unnerved at realizing the implications for a potential dud of a plutonium bomb.
    • A more sinister one when Abby finds out a distant relative in Minsk was "liquidated" as part of the Nazis wiping out a ghetto.
    • Even darker is when Liza discovers that everything in town, even the newborn babies in the base's maternity ward, is irradiated and poisonous. Subverted by the reveal that this might have been a hallucination.
    • Frank Winter purposely "spills all" to the bug he knows is hidden in his room. In his attempt at a Dying Moment of Awesome, he renders Charlie Isaacs blameless of anything to do with spying or compartmentalization, at the cost of either a long jail sentence in the middle of nowhere, or being quietly executed.
    • Meanwhile, in the finale, another spy turns out to be Meeks.
    • In the second season, in "Fatherland", Frank Winter discovers how Kafkaesque the spy game really can be. He finds out the entire prison he was put into was a test, and that the "Nazi material" he was told indicated the German bomb project's state of affairs actually was just a set of his own equations doctored up to look like someone else's blackboard.
  • Wham Line: When Reed Akley's wife tells him how she looks forward to Reed someday being invited to the White House - when in the previous episode Reed told Charlie he was going to the White House.
    • "You can fix Thin Man," said to Charlie Isaacs by Reed Akley in "The Gun Model." Akley was trying to convince Charlie to stay with the project, but had insisted all along that Thin Man worked. At this point Charlie realizes he was just hoping it would.
    • Frank, in the season finale:
    "We're building an atomic bomb."
    • Also in the finale:
    Oppenheimer: This is Dr. Charles Isaacs.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: Abby wakes up to a bit of this on "The New World".
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Frank is shown taking the trouble to trap a scorpion under a glass on his desk in the pilot, and it's dropped after that.
    • Charlie and Abby's young child seems to have evaporated somewhere along the way.
      • He reappears in the season finale.