The setting of The Grapes of Wrath, the novel penned by John Steinbeck in 1939 which won a Pulitzer Prize, and became an Oscar Winning film in 1940, was the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. This novel dealt with the struggles of a particular family called the Joads. They were forced to deal with a calamitous drought, changes in the farming industry, economic difficulties including foreclosures, and near hopelessness. In the film, Henry Fonda played Tom Joad.
What they strove for were steady employment, land, human dignity, and a future. The Joads had to pick up their stakes in Oklahoma and then they headed further west with California as their goal.
The TV series called Mad Men is set in the 1960’s, a generation later. But it still qualifies as a period piece. In this TV drama series, the people worked in the advertising industry. Mad Men was actually a short form of reference for people who worked in advertising on Madison Avenue in New York. The American society and culture of the 1960 was different than that of the Great Depression.
Most people were far better off than the general population was during the Depression, but this era was not without its issues – like the harmful activities of smoking and drinking, and the larger social issues of racism, homophobia, the lessening of personal values, sexism, and of course unrest in the country as a whole which lead to assassinations, and then came the war in Vietnam in the latter part of the 60’s.
The new series on the WGN America Network, Manhattan, begins in 1943, which while not a perfect fit, the show still lands squarely between the Great Depression era and the 1960’s Like both The Grapes of Wrath at the time it was published, and Mad Men, Manhattan is a period piece. Set in a small area of New Mexico, Manhattan is about the people who worked on the Manhattan Project, which was the research and development that would produce the first atomic bombs.
That’s the overview. If we ratchet up the zoom, we find that Manhattan is not going to be exclusively about the building of the bombs, but rather about the impact, and upheaval of life, on the people who were working on this super-secret project while living in the middle of nowhere.
In the early part of August. 1987, the music group U2 released its Joshua Tree album. From that album, a song called Where the Streets Have No Name was the third single released.
The lyrics from that song include:
I wanna feel sunlight on my face
I see the dust cloud disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no name
Now I’ve read that Bono from U2 has said that the song relates to Belfast where a person’s religion and income were evident by the street they lived on. Bono contrasted that to the anonymity of life in a country like Ethiopia, where such divisions (religion and income) could not exist in a place ‘where the streets have no name’.
In Manhattan we had a similar location – set in the desert, 40 miles out from Santa Fe, with the link being that the streets were also unnamed, and to say that this was a gated community would be a vast understatement. The people lived in a kind of housing that was a step up from a dormitory and a few steps down from proper corporate housing. Paper thin, clapboard walls, fluctuations in running water, and electricity, and of course the unseen issue of radiation were only a part of the set up. Quonset hut markets, and head lice also were prominent. In short this was the sun and the sand, without the beach. Replacing the beach was … secrecy, and its alter ego – suspicion.
Our scientists, and the military, and the clerical staff, as well as maintenance, as well as spouses and children were all domiciled on site. Of course they needed to be excluded from general society due the ultra secret nature of what they working on. When you factor in the fact that this was a race against time, as the first country to build the bombs, would be the first country to drop the bombs – hence the whole place was a microcosm of a ticking bomb (no pun intended).
Yes, there were bound to be leaks, and gossip, and even lapses in security. Paranoia existed around every corner and personal agendas across every desk.
As you know, Los Alamos, New Mexico was and is a real place, where it is possible that people on your family tree lived and worked. For the TV series Manhattan, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the real scientist behind this project, is portrayed in this series. But the rest of the characters are all fictitious. Which is why I began this piece with references to The Grapes of Wrath and Mad Men.
The cast may not be A-Listers, but they are not completely unknown. The lead scientist, Frank Winter, is played by John Benjamin Hickey. While his name might not jump off the page, you’ve seen this guy in such series as The Good Wife, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Modern Family. and many more series. His wife is portrayed by Olivia Williams. Rachel Brosnahan is on board and she had a key role in Season Two of House of Cards. David Harbour plays Reed Akley, the ‘competing scientist’ whose bomb design, called Thin Man, was in direct competition with Frank Winter’s design. Harbour had the role of newsman Elliot Hirsch in The Newsroom.
Okay, since we all know that the actual bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were code-named Fat Man and Little Boy. the main thrust of the series will be two-fold – whose design is chosen, and which country would reach their goal faster. Which could work against Manhattan since we have history serving as the ‘spoiler’ for the series.
On the other hand, if a period drama about these people has appeal for you, then you might consider watching this series on the WGN America network on Sunday nights.
Personally, I am not a big fan of period dramas, but that doesn’t mean I never watch them. After all, two of my all time favorite films – Chinatown and The Sting were period films. So tune in and watch competing scientists, a pecking order of their wives based on the jobs their husbands had, a lot of heat and dust, as well as suspicion lurking in every corner. In case this interests you, Thomas Schlamme who was a director and producer involved with the popular TV Series – The West Wing is on board Manhattan. I think the show will not break any record books in the rating wars – but this series should be worthwhile.
If you’ve seen or heard nothing about the show – then check out this video over at Entertainment Weekly: