By: Keith Nelson Jr (@Jusaire)
What does sex and atomic bombs forever have in common? Former Masters of Sex writer Sam Shaw, the creator, executive producer and writer of WGN America's scintillating new series Manhattan. CULTUREDAPPROVED spoke with Shaw's wife and fellow Manhattan writer, Lila Byock last month after she penned the penultimate episode of the series' first season which concluded on october 19th. In the FIRST PART of our extensive interview with Sam Shaw, the showrunner explains how to gauge success in the era of video on demand, why Manhattan is on WGN America instead of Netflix and more.
CULTUREDPPROVED: I initially got into Manhattan because I saw Rachel Brosnahan tweet about it and I am a huge Rachel Brosnahan fan. The penultimate episode, written by your wife Lila Byock, featured Reed Akely’s suicide. Would you consider what Frank Winter did during the season finale as his own suicide?
SAM SHAW: "That’s very interesting. Nobody’s asked me that or talked about it in that sense. But, that’s really perceptive. I mean, he spent this whole season in this kind of headlong pursuit of this thing he believes in. The one axiom that he never doubts is that he can deliver this bomb that’s in him to end this war. Once he decides that, it’s as if anything, everything and everyone else can be sacrificed for it. In its way it’s a noble idea at the heart of it. But, there’s all kinds of human wreckage. Beginning with Sid Lau in episode two and then these dominoes start falling. Akely gets caught up in it too and gets destroyed. There’s all this human wreckage, including Charlie in the finale. I think there’s a moment there in that finale where Frank just can’t carry that weight anymore. It becomes time to make a different choice and sacrifice himself. So, in a way it’s a suicide."
It’s always hard to get details on upcoming seasons from shows that had successful debuts. There were journalists selling their kidneys just to get a few details on True Detective season two. Nic Pizzolatto gave little tidbits. Since Manhattan is also based on history, what kind of events and history should people look out for in Season 2?
"Here’s two things I’ll say without spoiling anything. We spent a whole season talking about building an atomic bomb in a very theoretical, abstract way. There’s a few detonations in the desert for smaller prototypes. But, for the most part it was all theory. This second season is this inevitable sequel to that, where all of a sudden we’re moving from theory to practice towards the detonation of an actual bomb. All of the professional and personal stakes for these characters get a lot higher and life gets a lot more complicated the more you move out of that abstraction into the reality of this awesome and terrible weapon they’re creating. There’s that and then the other thing is we get to the end of this season and after 13 hours of storytelling, a lot of which resolves around the search for spy, we finally arrived at the revelation that there’s an actual spy story to be told on this show involving a real spy. That’s very much something we want to explore in the second season."
Times are changing. TV ratings can not fully be trusted. Advertisement money is dwindling for TV. Networks are even releasing full episodes in 15-second intervals to capitalize on the surge of TV viewing on mobile devices. "Manhattan" was renewed for a second season even in the face of inconsistent ratings which never reached half of the 900,000 viewers of its inaugural episode. According to Shaw, as the manner in which people consume television changes so should the criteria for success.
Manhattan is on one of the last superstations, WGN America. What made you want to go to WGN instead of going to Netflix route?
"We talked to a bunch of networks, including Netflix and we had some fantastic meeting. We were actually pretty close to the altar with a network. Then we had a meeting with WGN and they made us an offer we couldn’t refuse which was a straight-to-series order. You almost always have to shoot a pilot, have it screened for a focus group and the network tweaks it and decide if they are going to order the rest of the season. We got to jump over that part of the process and immediately go out and plan a 13 episode season, shoot all of it and we knew it was going to air. That guarantee was a huge gift to us. I think it really affected the storytelling, because there were a lot of dynamics we were able to take time and care in constructing, especially for the 1st half of the season. By the 2nd half of the season, when things pick up and there’s this sort of chain reaction of events with crazy and dramatic things taking place, there’s a feeling that it’s been set up organically in the storytelling. That was sort of the gift of working with WGN."
The first episode was the most viewed episode by a large margin and no other episode has come close to those views since. With Manhattan on Xfinity on Demand, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play and iTunes how do you gauge success? How are those meetings when you are talking about the show’s performance?
"Well it’s interesting. That conversation is changing in this business. Part of the reason it’s changing is because people’s relationships to TV is changing. There’s much more discussion now among not just cable networks but even the big broadcast networks about DVR viewing, discussion of Live+3 and Live+7 stats, how many people watch it over the course of a week, not just live when it airs. That’s a reflection of the fact that people choose to watch TV time-shifted and not watch live anymore. A lot of people like to wait unti a season is over and bingewatch. With new shows, people are reluctant to jump in and make a commitment when they don’t know if the show is going to get cancelled. That’s all to say that the kind of statistics game of viewership is a lot blurrier than it used to be. But, there’s no doubt that the strong hope and the conviction of the network that a lot of people who have not seen our show in our first run will be able to catch up on Hulu or Amazon or any of the services available."
PART TWO EXPLORES "MANHATTAN" WRITING PROCESS, WHAT THE SHOW WOULD BE LIKE IF IT WAS MADE LIKE "TRUE DETECTIVE"+ MORE