Monday, August 29, 2016

Manhattan; quick notes: The Night Of & BBC's Sherlock

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes during filming of Sherlock. Photo by RanZag. Licensed by CC by 2.0.

I've enjoyed watching the first season of WGN's TV show, Manhattan, which is a fantasia on what it must have been like among the geniuses that contributed to the building of the first atom bomb as they worked under both tremendous pressures and petty conflicts. First, there is the mounting death toll of the Second World War, so there is a sense that time off even to rest a day costs lives.

WWII-era Los Alamos resembles the scientist's prison in Alexander Solzehenitsyn's In the First Circle—the scientists are effectively trapped in what from a safe distance resembles an unknown town in the New Mexican desert, but from the inside of the carefully guarded barbed-wire perimeter, among its shabby housing, inadequate power, and trickling supply of discolored water, it's a bell jar. This nuclear boomtown is overseen by an authoritarian Big Brother that constantly looks over the shoulder and breathes down the neck of each resident.

The residents are a bizarre mix of highly pressured people and of bored people—like the spouses of the scientists—who have little but futile hobbies challenged by isolation, gossip, and trysts. Internally Los Alamos reminds me of The Village in the 1960s spy show The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan. The Village constantly stages mock elections, fairs and festivals, and other events to make the residents feel at home and enfranchised. Los Alamos stages its small political farce with their "town council," which has little more power than the PTA of an elementary school. Yet the most salient quality of events staged in The Village and in Los Alamos is that they feel so obviously ersatz, and they succeed only in making people long for the kaleidoscopic happenings and the chaos of cities of the real world. People need the feeling of unpredictability and a grace note of chaos because a lack of disorder belies a society under tyrannical control. (This has a lot to do with why I cannot trust someone with an orderly desk.)
Key cast from WGN's Manhattan.
There are many conflicts among the scientists themselves. There are two groups, intentionally set up to compete, with two different methods to build "the gadget," as the euphemistic code calls it. One involves "shooting" a chunk of Uranium at another chunk in a gun-like arrangement, and the other is the implosion model, in which a sphere of fissionable material must be made to collapse upon itself in order to start the reaction that creates the stellar fire of the gadget. On top of the conflict between techniques, the scientists accuse each other of plagiarism, of spying, of incompetence, and all sorts of other nastiness. The two groups are "compartmentalized," meaning they mustn't share information between themselves, and policing the no-man's land between the groups is this terrifying monster of a G-2 man whose mere interrogation feels like psychological torture.

Finally there is the natural conflict between educated "egg-heads" and military Philistines. Some of that conflict comes from just being different. Some comes from the resentment smart people have when their lives are governed by idiots, and of course an idiot believes that an egg-head's every demand stems not from legitimate need but from over-education—from being spoiled, from getting paid ten times as much just for sitting at a desk without breaking an honest workingman's sweat.

With some things, like a properly working stove or a bath tub, people put their feet down and demand necessities not from the impotent town council but from the Army, whose Never-Never Land this really is, and the Army begrudgingly yields only after a great deal of pressure. Naturally this creates a black market, which is more dangerous than it would be in the real world because of the 1984-ish security. The need for total secretiveness dictates surveillance everywhere—every affair is known, every departure from the ordinary is questioned as potential espionage or sabotage. More than once we see a troupe of MPs swarm a house, drag the man out and stuff him in the back seat, while the wife seeks to comfort her terrified child as still more MPs shake down the house for contraband and signs of espionage. I don't know if this is really how the first bomb got built, but it seems likely.

The characters in Manhattan are largely fictitious. We do briefly meet Henry L. Stimson (Gerald McRaney), Roosevelt's Secretary of War, and J. Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London), but the drama between them is intense but brief. Most of the characters and their many dramas are fictional but highly plausible.

Manhattan is one of the wonderful shows that has come out since television has shed its wasp-waisted girdle and deconstructed ridiculously unreal worlds built out of pablum. I won't say we've gotten as real as, say, the world of Ingmar Bergman's films, but at least it no longer feels like television's first goal is not to offend anyone. Not just television, but any art should offend, not gratuitously but purposefully when it serves to wake an audience lulled by their cultural overlords. One advantage of television that feels closer to reality is that it can deal with the crippling constructs that people carry around in their heads, particularly expectations of women and of non-white people. So, for example, when a scientist finds himself alone in a room with another scientist's wife and runs his hand up her skirt, we see what unbridled bastards men who dehumanize women can be. Before this honest epoch of television, such things never happened on television, and as such, we had less occasion to think about it in real life.

The lead scientist's wife, Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) is a scientists in her own right, but the men around her persist in treating her like Dr Winter's "little woman." It is only after some battling that she persuades people to call her Dr Winter instead of Mrs Winter. She attempts to do some science on her own by setting up a bee hive, but the hive collapses because of a mystery that, at the end of Season One, remains unsolved—but for a while she suspects that the Army might have poisoned her bees. And there is a woman physicist contributing as meaningfully as any man to the project, but again and again she is overlooked or discredited.

The first season of Manhattan, which I finished tonight, has received a 90% Certified Fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes, and the Second Season, did slightly better with 92%. In this review I've given scant attention to the actors who did such a fantastic job, and critical acclaim has also called attention to the fidelity of the recreation of the period—every detail contributes to the early 1940s setting. Overall the show had excellent critical reception, but it did not find the audience that WGN hoped, so with regrets, they cancelled it. There is a clue for that lack of audience in the show itself: the conflict between the Egg-heads and the Philistines is not merely a phenomenon limited to Los Alamos but a conflict that defines the world, and that definition is reflected in who would watch this show and who wouldn't. It's a challenging show that demands attention and a little thinking, but it rewards the close viewer. It looks as though Season 2 will eventually make it to Hulu, where I streamed the first season, but I might have to wait awhile (join me on Hulu and get two weeks free). Currently it's available on Amazon Video for a small charge.

Amara Karan as the attorney Chandra in The Night Of.
The other show that I finished watching tonight was HBO's gripping The Night Of with Riz Ahmed, John Turturro, and Amara Karan. HBO adapted the BBC's limited series, Criminal Justice, which does not appear to be available on my ROKU, but with HBO's success, I would think someone would hasten to snatch that up. (In the past I thoroughly enjoyed watching both the original Australian version of the limited series, The Slap, on Roku, as well as the American remake, because the differences between the shows highlighted American and Australian cultural differences. Both were based on a novel by Christos Tsiolkas, and both versions are available on Hulu.)

So, at least until Hulu comes up with Season 2 of Manhattan, two of my weekly viewing hours have just opened up. A friend, with clairvoyant timing, has just recommended that I take up with this recent BBC adaptation of Sherlock. The show is set in the present day, but it has all the wit & genius of Holmes, and the comedy seems to be turned up just a little bit, but of course there is nothing funny about solving the case of a serial murder, so the show promises to be quite involving. The manner in which the stories forward in time also appears to be clever. I'm looking forward to getting into it. This is good timing to get involved with the show too because there is a fourth season set for January 2017. Each episode tends to run about an hour and a half long—the length of a feature film—and each season (what they call a series in Britain) comprises three episodes. Seasons 1, 2, and 3 were released in 2010, 2012, and 2014. There was a special episode released on 1 January 2016, and Season 4 is set for January 2017. I've really only peeked at Episode 1.1 without watching it through—I was so tired that I fell asleep, no fault of the show itself. If this is as good as it seems to be, you'll be reading more about it here.

Cheers, everyone.


Martin Freeman as Dr Watson during filming of Sherlock. Photo by RanZag. Licensed by CC by 2.0.