Manhattan and the Problem of “Peak TV”

TV Features
Manhattan and the Problem of “Peak TV”

What does it mean to exist in a Golden Age? The tragedy of this question is, generally speaking, most people rarely ever realize when they’re actively living in one—or at least, not until they recognize when it’s coming to an end. As a famed New Jersey mobster once said to his therapist, “Lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end—the best is over.”

Fortunately, in this age of endless information exchange, both our media and collectively sharpened senses of self-awareness continuously remind us that we are in the midst of a very specific kind of Golden Age—a Golden Age of Television. Whereas the turn of the millennium exclusively presented offerings from the big, broadcast networks, with a handful of HBO shows thrown in for good measure, the past 15 years has seen an explosion of prestigious content from every venue imaginable. Hell, the company that once shipped us DVDs in red envelopes now seems to be churning out paradigm-shifting programs every week. But, as with any abrupt growth spurt, there has been no shortage of growing pains.

In his now infamous address to TV critics at the Television Critics Association press tour in summer 2015, FX President John Landgraf coined the term “peak TV” and went on to describe the mass scramble that has resulted, now that hundreds of shows (his own included) are vying for viewer eyeballs.

“There is simply too much television,” Landgraf proclaimed. “There’s just too much competition, so much so that I think the good shows often get in the way of the audience finding the great ones.”

For me, Landgraf’s prognostications never felt more incisive than last week when news broke that WGN America had canceled Manhattan—a program I have spilled much digital ink over in the past year. Besides the standard sadness that accompanies such news, however, the series’ cancellation has moved me to ruminate on our status quo. As Hitfix critic Alan Sepinwall so succinctly put it, Manhattan was a show made possible by “peak TV” only to, in the end, be killed by it.

Let’s unpack the first part of that statement. Whereas a decade prior, WGN American may have been running Chicago sports games and sitcom reruns, the changing nature of the business pushed the channel—as it had with FX and AMC before it—into the realm of original programming. In a business climate where there are more networks than any one human could possibly consume, it becomes imperative to make your network stick out—to make it a destination and not just something a person glances at for a split second while channel surfing. The solution: produce a TV show that will capture the public’s imagination and dominate the water cooler conversation, effectively creating a network brand or, in some cases, pivoting away from a previous one. Following HBO’s meteoric rise in the late ‘90s, FX positioned themselves as a contender with The Shield, as did AMC with Breaking Bad and Mad Men. More recently, USA and Lifetime have sought to revamp their established brands by airing dark, challenging dramas such as Mr. Robot and Unreal.

WGN dipped their toe into original programming with the genre excursion Salem, but its first true dive into the “prestige television” category was Manhattan. From the onset, the show had an ambitious premise. Set in the desert town of Los Alamos, New Mexico at the height of WWII, the story examined the complicated relationships and interior lives of a group of (mostly fictionalized) physicists, as they grapple with the slow realization that they are constructing the most destructive weapon the world will ever see: the atomic bomb. It’s the type of show that could only exist in the wake of Mad Men—a period, ensemble drama that engages with the history around it, all the while imbuing its narrative with the kind of domestic drama one would typically find in a John Cheever story. And that’s not even taking into account the frequent flashes of high-stakes espionage, as well as the suspense-filled, dread-soaked atmosphere that brings to mind the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, or the genre morality plays of The Twilight Zone.

I loved this show. I loved its world. I loved its character. I loved its music. It introduced me to an assortment of great actors (Rachel Brosnahan, Ashley Zukerman, Katja Herbers, Christopher Denham), successfully highlighted ones who deserve the spotlight (John Benjamin Hickey, Michael Chernus, Harry Lloyd) and pushed its more noteworthy thespians (William Petersen, Olivia Williams, Daniel Stern) into exciting new territories. There was a reason I sought to interview its creator, Sam Shaw, not just once, but twice, before the series came to an end. I even bought the First Season Blu-Ray as a Christmas present for my parents and got them hooked (still not looking forward to explaining this news to them).

I won’t lie—perhaps part of my love for the show stemmed from the sad fact that, unlike say Game of Thrones, Walking Dead or Empire, not everyone and their mother was watching it. It felt like something specially designed just for myself and a dedicated group of viewers, much in the same way I’m sure intense music geeks flocked to the likes of Big Star. Unfortunately, no series that seeks longevity necessarily wants to be a cult hit. Moreover, the world that helped birth Manhattan was also a world replete with overcrowding issues. To extend the music metaphor to its breaking point, we now live in a world where there are literally hundreds of new songs being pumped out every week. And while critics and tastemakers can do their best to sort through the mass and find the diamonds, there’s the very real, very depressing possibility that the next Big Star has already slipped through the cracks. Heck, Andy Samberg even did a bit in his Emmy opening about how there’s simply “too many shows.”

The real shame is that, given the show’s negative prognosis, Shaw will likely not have the opportunity to explore the real meat of his story, which was not actually the bomb’s inevitable detonation, but the aftermath of its deployment. Also, to be clear, I’m not blaming WGN America for cutting the cord. This is a fickle business and recent developments have only afforded it reasons to be even more fickle. Plus, the network’s producing the likes of Outsiders and the upcoming Underground, so it’s not as though they’re distancing themselves from producing quality, buzz-worthy TV.

As a point of comparison, the closest parallel to Manhattan that I can draw is AMC’s equally viewer-challenged drama Halt & Catch Fire. Like Manhattan, Halt is a period drama (albeit, the more recent 1980s) wherein the central characters all have highly specialized, if not necessarily super sexy, skill sets (computer programmers, mechanics, etc.). Late last year, against all odds, AMC announced that Halt had secured a third season. Here, unlike the relatively new WGN America, AMC more than likely has the the infrastructure in place when it comes to their original programming (as well as a monster new hit in the form of Fear the Walking Dead). As such, the network could probably afford to support its struggling, critically acclaimed baby. Plus, something tells me that the more minimal Halt, with its limited roster of regulars and numerous interior scenes, can be produced for far cheaper than the beautifully rendered world and ensemble that Manhattan required.

So what’s the lesson we can gather from this? Manhattan is far from the first show to be cut down in its prime, nor will it be the last. What’s becoming readily apparent, however, is that we are reaching a period in which a TV fan must also serve as a TV evangelist. In working for a publication like Paste, I’m lucky in that I have been afforded a platform to extol about my favorite shows. In watching Manhattan’s outcome, I feel guilty that I didn’t write about it more often.

So, as I reconcile the notion of writing about Manhattan for the final time, here are my recommendations:

1. Sample the series on Hulu (where the first season is currently still streaming).

2. If you like what you see, it’s definitely worth coughing up the dough to buy Season Two on iTunes or Amazon.

3. Purchase the excellent soundtrack (if for no other reason than you’re a fan of co-composer/Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi).

4. Get on Twitter and pressure Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, Instagram (whatever place is currently in the “resurrection” business) to pick the show up and allow the cast and crew to continue on with this great story.

5. Encourage your friends to check it out—while being careful not to pester them to the point where they ignore you purely out of spite.

Television is, first and foremost, a business. If the powers-that-be sense a demand, they’re more incentivized to fill that need. Be prepared to fight for what you love. Hell, a major reasons we have The X-Files back is because Kumail Nanjiani’s X-Files Files podcast demonstrated the intense love and fandom that still exists for that program, more than a decade after its cancellation.

Finally, we come to the worst-case scenario—what if this truly is the last of Manhattan and nothing can be done? Well, it’s worth emphasizing that, if those concluding moments of Season Two are definitively the show’s last hurrah, it firmly stands as one of the ballsiest, most chill-inducing conclusions to any series in recent memory. If the best series finales are a decisive period, that finale was an exclamation point. All combined, these 23 produced episodes meticulously built upon each other, leading to actions and revelations that were as metaphorically explosive as the bomb at the show’s center.

Perhaps Manhattan was never destined to have the juggernaut ratings of Game of Thrones, or the widespread fandom of Mad Men. To me, however, it was special. To me, Manhattan represented TV at its most magical. It dropped me into a world 70-years-old and not only got me to care about a group of characters as diametrically dissimilar from myself as possible, but actively informed my views on history, government and the inevitable complications that emerge from the “greater good” defense.

As The Golden Age rattles onward, it’s certainly prudent to internalize the old adage of “all that glitters is not gold.” Just because something is shiny and new, boasts movie stars or features gratuitous amounts of sex or violence, does not mean it’s good. Well, I’m hear to tell you that Manhattan glittered, and it was gold. It was solid gold.

Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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