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MANHATTAN’s Sam Shaw Talks Science in TV Storytelling, Reactions to Female Stories, Plus an EXCLUSIVE Clip

There may be no place so perfectly made for television storytelling than The Hill on WGN America’s Manhattan. At the center of this mysterious home to a mysterious project at the height of the second World War lies entangled stories of science, war, humanity, the government, secrets, and the humans that must survive — and thrive — within it all. Strict rules, secrecy, hope for a better future (lain in the hands of an atomic bomb): all of these seeds blossom into an incredible mix of drama and questioning.

We had the opportunity to chat with the show’s creator, Sam Shaw, during his lunch break for jury duty last week (whatta champ, right?) and dissected those questions, looked at the varied and enigmatic depictions of women on the series, and why science is the perfect field for storytelling right now.

And as a bonus! We’ve got an exclusive clip from the series embedded in the post. That way those of you who have yet to see the series will feel more inclined to tune in — say, during the all-day marathon of the series that’s happening on Sunday, October 26th on WGN America (check your local listings).

Nerdist: There’s an idea in here that I really sort of love about the show, because we as viewers know what happened, but these characters really believe that they’re servicing a greater good. The idea of “good” men versus “necessary” men really plays into this idea of these two views of how the future turns out.

SS: Well that’s one of the things, when I was doing research on the people of Los Alamos, that really knocked me over and I found really devastating and poignant. And powerful. Learning just how many of them believed that they were going to inoculate the world forever from the disease of war. That they were curating the world of war by inventing this instrument of destruction. It was so fascinating to me because of course there are so many questions: Was that an elaborate self-justification? Was it earnest? It just seemed so utopian and hopeful. … For the most part we’re writing about characters who try to be good and who generally operate with the best intentions in spite of fuck-ups and betrayals of themselves and each other. That essential conflict between the noble intentions and the really messy and complicated outcomes of the characters’ actions was really interesting for us to explore and write about.

Nerdist: You see that so well, in particular, with Charlie in the finale this season. You see everything really come into view regarding how manipulated he’s been. No matter how how idealized he’s been, how smart and necessary he is to the project, it got to even him — somebody with the noblest of intentions.

SS: One thing that’s always been really fascinating to me about the Manhattan Project is that when you read testimonials from scientists who were there, often something they talk about is the experience they had of coming to the project with this great sense of the bigger human and moral context of what it was they were doing, and then gradually kind of losing it as they got more and more immersed in the work and the experience they were having. Anything can become a job — even saving the world or destroying the world, depending on how you look at The Manhattan Project.

It was interesting to us to bring Charlie to this place: someone who was initially sort of the conscious of the show — someone who has a deep sense of what the moral implications are of this thing they’re midwifing into existence. And he’s very much aware of the idea that this is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. This thing that they’re inventing will never go away, even once this war is over. Gradually he gets drawn into the complications of the work and makes a lot of choices, often with the best of intentions, that have some pretty fucked up and problematic outcomes for the people he cares about. So tracking the evolution of Charlie’s relationship with Abby and his work was so interesting. And Ash [Zukerman] I think is such a brilliant and sensitive actor.

Nerdist: Ash and I spoke a lot about that and this whole idea of secrets, and how almost Stanford Prison Experiment-y it can feel. But at the same token — and maybe I’m going too much it this, but — coupling that with the science at the center of the story brings about so many interesting human stories to tell.

SS: My mother was a mediator all throughout her career and that was a job that she did not leave at the office when she came home. And so there was this feeling that there was no problem unsolvable as long as its possible to communicate clearly and honestly about it. And it sounds sorta cornball but that’s something that interests me as a notion, you know? A lot of the larger systemic problems in the country, in a marriage, in a community, in an office, are essentially problems of communication and it was very, very interesting to us to take all these very different characters and put them into a world where they’re all kind of checked on their ability to communicate. Or they’re forced into a position where they have to omit or lie and to just watch what the effects of those seemingly innocuous secrets are within their relationships and how they metathesized.

[[NOTE: This next bit contains finale spoilers — skip ahead to the next photo if you want to avoid.]]

Nerdist: Well that communication is so central to that final scene with Frank in a way. You see him talking directly to the bug in his house and it at least feels like [laughs] he’s finally doing something that’s kind of knowingly selfless — at least from the outside. And it’s interesting how this simple moment of “honest” communication with his wife completely upends everything.

SS: I love that, that’s such a great way of thinking about that scene, and that very much is the intention. But it’s kind of a complicated moment, because on the one hand I hope it’s narratively gratifying because Frank has sorta alienated and betrayed and lied to almost everyone he cares about in the service of this greater good, or at least what he considers to be the greater good. Obviously from a historical standpoint that’s a very arguable position. We watched him sacrifice others on the altar of this sense of mission, his sense that if he can’t deliver his bomb, nothing else matters. Then we have this moment where he sacrifices himself. I think that it’s a moment that I hope has some emotional force and John Benjamin Hickey is such an incredibly brilliant, soulful actor that I feel it really hair-raisingly beautiful as he performs it.

But at the same time there’s this whole other set of complicated questions associated with it. Is he doing what he does just to assuage his conscious? It feels better to be a different kind of hero for once — there are all these sort of complexities and angles to it and I think he plays all those ironies really beautifully. But I love the idea that you have finally one truth — even if it’s a truth wrapped in a lie or a lie wrapped in a truth — and it sort of explodes this whole complicated network of relationships and upends all the power structures.

Nerdist: It really does — I mean when you see him (or who we can only assume is him) being taken off the base with the sack over his head and you realize that literally anything can happen now, which is certainly a great place to end the first season of a show.

[[NOTE: Spoilers over! You can resume reading]]

Nerdist: Science at this time, and in shows like The Knick and Masters of Sex, is really on the cusp, the cutting edge, so it already has this unstable element to it, in addition to this show having a literal one at the heart. It represents so much of what we fear and are excited about in terms of human possibility. Which is probably what attracts people like Frank Winter to a project like this.

SS: Well one thing that’s very interesting to me about that moment in science, and this was something I thought was so fascinating when I worked on Masters of Sex [Ed. Note: Shaw was a writer on the first season of MoS]. This mid-century moment when there was a real feeling that science could perfect human life in a way. Like a lot of great science fiction, it lives at this sort of crossroads of our greatest hopes and our greatest fears and that irony or paradox is at the heart of The Manhattan Project to me. It is both the story of the greatest feat of human ingenuity in the 20th century. It was this collaborative project taken on by the greatest minds in science from all around the world. And it was also this moment when the world became terrifying and dangerous and unpredictable in a new way. This might be nerdy and highfalutin’, but we got this Promethean gift, or curse, of being able to destroy ourselves or the planet and we’ve lived in a perilous world ever since, and that duality is really interesting and something that fuels a lot of storytelling on the show.

Nerdist: Well I feel like right now, especially, we’re in a particularly dense time of social and scientific exploration of our human capabilities and the multitudes we have within us, and I think that’s why shows like Masters of Sex and Manhattan are so resonant right now. I think that’s something that’s been missing in a lot of television but simultaneously something that television can do really well: ruminate on it, think about it, and really sort of play out how it can actually effect. It’s still in theory but it’s a bit more tactile, if that makes sense.

SS: Listen, I feel so privileged to be able to work in TV right now, there’s just so much good television and I’m such a fan of so many things going on right now. And I think part of the thing that’s been exciting is there’s a lot of new forms being discovered and a lot of experimentation going on in TV right now. TV is its own kind of science experiment right now. For me at least it’s a form that’s much better suited to exploring in a deep way a lot of the ideas and aspects of what it is to be a person in the world than the short-form of features is right now. Some of that has to do with the problems and the economics of filmmaking and the way that the film business is being consolidated and changed in the last 15 or 20 years. But I think some of it has to do with the size of the canvas.

I have a friend who’s a TV writer who used to say that movies have a classic 3-act structure, but in television the pilot is the first act, and the series finale is the third act and everything in between is sort of the multiverse wherein you get to explore all of the possibilities and all of the different second acts that could’ve existed. It’s like a variation on a theme, so instead of making one choice you get to explore all of the choices and you get to live with ironies and pick up threads and drop ’em; favor one character and then another; watch characters grow and change and make mistakes — and make the same mistakes over again, which obviously we all do, or at least I do — but it’s a very cool thing.

I think particularly now in TV, it’s very interesting to me that there are a lot of shows choosing science as not only content for shows but a metaphor in storytelling. Because to me, this is a moment we’re living in right now, where the world does feel very precarious and the future feels uncertain. And scientists, just by their essential nature and occupation, kind of live on a frontier and they are constantly probing the very furthest reaches of what is known and that is something that’s really exciting and it becomes a kind of interesting narrative device.

Nerdist: Speaking of whirlwinds I have to ask you about Olivia Williams because, holy cats she was just so amazing this season.

SS: Anyone on the planet who is not in love with Olivia Williams I cannot understand. She’s just so brilliant and fascinating. You know I actually wrote the role of Liza with Olivia Williams in mind and I thought, of course we’ll never get her. But she helped me understand who this character was because she projects such a complicated intelligence and depth. That kind of wry humor — she’s got such a natural wit and she’s so strong but also has a really fascinating vulnerability, too. So the day when she called up and said she was free to sign on was probably the most surreal in the process of seeing this show come to life.

Nerdist: She plays so well this idea of someone who’s incredibly brilliant and the demons that come with incredible and stifled brilliance so well. Like they bit with the radiation detector — it brings up so many questions and the resolution is so heartbreaking, but it shows so well what this sort of environment can do to a person, particularly one with such duality to her own state of mind.

SS: We love, all of us, the writers, we love Liza so much. In some ways she was the heart of the show from the beginning. We were just so fascinated by her predicament. What is it like to be someone who has her own career and her own rich intellectual life and is deprived of all that arriving in this place. What’s it like to be a misfit that’s excluded by the scientists because she’s not involved with the project, but she doesn’t fit in with the wives either.

In there is an analogy that helps me understand Frank and Liza a little bit. My wife [writer Lila Byock] is also a writer, and we met in grad school writing fiction, so talking about work and fiction, and arguing over whose prose style is better Lorrie Moore or Nabokov, that’s the air we sort of breathe as partners and the idea of what would happen if suddenly we were no longer to share that air, if we were no longer able to share our intellectual lives with each other was heartbreaking to imagine.

And that’s at the heart of the problem for Frank and Liza. And then on top of it it was just really interesting to write about someone who has, what she’s told by her doctors, as a “nervous condition” by her doctors. The diagnosis of hysteria in women and mental illness in women was really hot and complicated. There are all sorts of dark gender implications involved in that, but even aside from that there’s this question of what is it to be someone who has struggled and a disorder of some kind in the past and was then put into this place that’s a bubble of paranoia? A secret city full of secrets. What would that do to a person? In that way it was a story of a woman who may be truly paranoid but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you’re not being followed. So we actually one touchstone that we talked about quite a bit was Rosemary’s Baby. … That sort of knife’s edge that Liza walks and that we walk with her in terms of her sanity and her perception of this place is really fascinating.

Nerdist: Not to be so foofy but it really feels like it speaks to or relates to a struggle of a lot of women today, where you’re constantly being told that you’re crazy but you feel completely rational. But the struggle of that divide of perception versus reality, Olivia plays into those nuances so well and with such real honesty.

SS: Well unfortunately this seems to be a moment — even just within the last few months — where a lot of these gender questions that you’re talking about, particularly in that weird petrie dish that is the Internet, are taking place. It’s a necessary but unfortunately kind of disturbing discussion.

Nerdist: But I think the women on this show explore the many unexplored existences and secret lives of women. Between Liza and Helen and Abby in particular, how they are and exist is so unexpected by their male peers within the Hill microcosm. And you can explore those struggles with all three of them.

SS: Well first of all it’s a crazy gift to write for all three of them, they’re so incredible. It’s a curious thing, though. Inevitably, we come across some of the — not just critical but fan — responses to our show, and I will say there’s a strain within some of the fandom of our show that feels put off when we tell stories about the women on our show. It’s odd: in particular, I’ll see their tweets from time to time and their comments, that are all variations on the theme of the idea that really what Manhattan is about is the technical development of the bomb, and a show about engineering and we’re devolving into soap when we write about the domestic lives or the emotional lives — particularly of the women. Leaving aside the question of whether or not I’m disturbed by that kind of response, it’s amusing to me to hear people tell me what my show is about. And instructing me about what it was supposed to be about. It’s a little frustrating because, to me, what happens outside of the domain of science on our show is equally as interesting — if not more so — than the science itself. Particularly when it comes to this impossible predicament that most of the women find themselves in.

Nerdist: Isn’t it so funny when people put their wants and expectations on things you’re creating? It’s one of my favorites.

SS: It is very funny. One I especially like is when people speculate that it must be because the network is forcing storylines down our throats, like we’re getting soap opera shoved down our gullets … [but] the story choices we make on the show are entirely driven by and the results of the interests and passions of the writers in the writers’ room. So if anybody wants to hold anybody accountable or lay blame, it should rest at our feet.

What did you think about the first season of Manhattan? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.

Images: WGN America

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