Monday, July 31, 2017

TV REVIEW: Discovery's 'Manhunt: Unabomber'

Discovery will debut its new limited series Manhunt: Unabomber on Tuesday, August 1 at 9/8c. with a special two-hour premiere. The drama stars Sam Worthington, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Bobb, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Lynn Collins, Brian F. O'Byrne, Elizabeth Reaser, Ben Weber, Chris Noth and Jane Lynch.

Read on for my thoughts on the new series after screening its premiere episode.

Discovery has been one of the top cable channels in the ratings for a long time. They've found consistent success with their reality programming like Deadliest Catch, Street Outlaws and Naked and Afraid. It's also a network that has only dabbled into the scripted waters over the past few years. In this era of the medium, every network seems to want to be in the scripted space. They bring out one show and then quickly announce a few more projects in order to develop and grow the brand. That really hasn't been the case for Discovery though. Its latest scripted project - Manhunt: Unabomber - is only the third scripted series it has produced. The other two were 2014's Klondike and 2016's Harley and the Davidsons. Both of which were successful in the ratings but were closed-ended miniseries. There wasn't the ambition to develop them into anything more than the story they produced. On one hand, that is to be respected. Discovery seems aware that it doesn't want to crowd the market with even more offerings. But on the other hand, it's disappointing that the network doesn't do more scripted because it has proven to be a good draw for their target audience.

Of course, Manhunt: Unabomber is the first scripted offering from Discovery that I've made the effort to see. It's a project I was really intrigued by when it was first announced. As the casting notices came in, it was clear that this project had some high ambitions. My intrigued was piqued and needed to know if the quality of the show deserved such high-caliber actors. The network only sent out the first two episodes of the eight-episode season. The two will be airing as a super-sized premiere on Tuesday, August 1 as well. That's a smart decision. The first hour suffers from some pretty bad expositional problems. It's a lot of information and false leads being thrown at the audience in quick succession in order to get them up to speed on what's happening. The Unabomber operated for many years before FBI Agent Jim "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington from Avatar) joined the task force. The show is fundamentally about how his inclusion led to the eventual arrest of Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany from the Marvel movies) for the crime. It's just too much expositional dialogue that really hammers home the big themes and information of the series.

And yet, it also feels like the cost of doing business with the show. The first hour needed to be very informative in order for the second to actually have some narrative weight to it. That's the hour where everything comes together in this project. It's a well-directed showcase full of some fantastic acting that pulls the viewer in. This is a story where many in the potential audience already know the big details about the case. The Unabomber was a serial killer who sent bombs through the mail targeting seemingly random people for a greater message. He spelled that out in his grand manifesto which he mailed to the FBI. He was able to operate for years because there were no promising leads that could pinpoint to his exact identity. He was eventually arrested by the FBI in the mid-1990s as soon as the manifesto arrived. That document changed the bureau's whole perception of the killer. It changed everything. Manhunt paints it as Fitz's story. He's the driving force for the change amongst the bureau in how they handle this particular case. It's a story that feels familiar because it's largely about a guy who sees things differently coming into a well-run operation and facing resistance and skepticism everywhere he goes. No one on the official task force believes that linguistics analysis and profiling will lead to the capture of the Unabomber. They all have trust in the forensic sciences and are hoping that the killer will one day make a mistake. The show is fundamentally about how that wasn't true at all. It was ultimately up to this outsider to crack the code and unravel the mystery at the center of it.

The narrative seemingly takes a cause-and-effect approach in its depiction of these events as well. It joggles back-and-forth in time. It tells stories in both 1995 and 1997. That's not a huge difference on the surface. Some characters stay exactly the same in both years while others are radically different because of what ultimately happens in the case. It's a creative decision that allows Bettany to have more of a presence as Kaczynski. Because the Unabomber's identity was shrouded in secrecy for so long (where the only lead was the infamous sketch of a possible suspect), Bettany really isn't around during the events of the '95 story. That's all about Fitz joining the task force and trying to make sense of the mountain of new evidence with hidden clues that will eventually point him directly to Kaczynski. But the casting of Bettany ensures that the narrative is going to spend a significant amount of time with the famed serial killer. That mostly plays out in the '97 story where the Unabomber has been arrested and awaiting trial. The U.S. government is deciding what's the best course of action to take. Should they take it to trial or try to get a confession out of this man? In the 1990s, a slam dunk case wasn't as trustworthy as it was in past decades. The show even makes references to O.J. Simpson, Waco and the Menendez brothers (all of which have gotten the miniseries treatment in Peak TV) to rationalize why taking the Unabomber case to trial is potentially a bad idea despite the mounting evidence against Kaczynski.

But overall, Manhunt: Unabomber succeeds because it has a core message that can easily relate to the society of 2017. It spends a lot of time focusing on the philosophy of this story. It analyzes what Kaczynski truly thought and why he did what he did. It's a belief that Fitz is able to understand. That makes them two characters whose lives will forever be intwined. That's another staple of the cable drama over the past decade or so. It's familiar territory that works because of the messaging as well as the acting and direction. There is just such a strong command of tone and story on display in these opening episodes. It's really impressing to watch despite those issues in the early going. It works because Bettany is believable as a super-intelligent killer who sees himself as simply more enlightened than the average citizen of the world. Worthington is strong as the guy uncertain and nervous in crowds but confident in his analysis of behavior and the effects it can have on society. They are surrounded by an incredible cast that includes Chris Noth as the head of the task force, Keisha Castle-Hughes as Fitz's partner, Jeremy Bobb as an obnoxious superior officer who doesn't want his preconceptions challenged and Jane Lynch as the attorney general tasked with overseeing it all. That's a fine list of actors all being given quality material to work with. As such, it makes it clear that Discovery has a series worthy of your attention. The plan is also to turn it into an American Horror Story-style anthology should it be successful. Based on these opening episodes, it definitely would deserve it.