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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Looking for MANHUNT: UNABOMBER

Article first published as TV Review: MANHUNT: UNABOMBER on Seat42F.


Discovery Channel’s newest series, MANHUNT: UNABOMBER, premieres this week. Unlike most of the programming on the network, this one is completely scripted, with a cast of familiar actors playing the roles of actual people, rather than interviews with experts and historians. I’m not sure why Discovery needs scripted shows, but given the focus on forensic linguistics, a practice largely dismissed at the time of the events depicted, this makes sense as the type of program that their core audience will likely be interested in.

Sam Worthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans) stars as Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, the FBI agent who gets inside the head of serial killer Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany, The Avengers movies) and brings him to justice. Fitz is a loner himself, smarter than most people, and he comes to understand Ted in a deep way that is, at times, disturbing. As Ted complains about how society is changing, Fitz can’t help but see his point, which does allow him to save lives, but screws up his own pretty completely in the process.

Worthington’s performance, full of complexity and nuance, is worthy of a feature film, and the style and tone of the program seems to bend that way as well. While watching the two-hour premiere, I couldn’t help but feel like I was at the theatre, similar as MANHUNT: UNABOMBER is to films in the genre. In fact, other than its clunky title, it seems like a pretty quality feature.

The supporting cast helps, too, with Keisha Castle-Hughes (Game of Thrones), Chris Noth (Sex and the City), Elizabeth Reaser (Twilight), Jeremy Bobb (The Knick), Brian F. O’Byrne (Aquarius), Mark Duplass (Togetherness), Brian D’Arcy James (Smash), Lynn Collins (John Carter), and Jane Lynch (Glee) making for a pretty formidable ensemble. And that’s not even a full roster.

But where MANHUNT: UNABOMBER suffers is where it differs most from a feature film: the running time. At eight hours, it is too long, telling a story that would have been hard to cram in two, but isn’t interesting enough for a full miniseries. Yes, I make that claim after having only watched twenty-five percent of it, but the amount of wasted screen time in those initial two hours is why I feel comfortable saying it.

A lot of time is given over to Fitz begging his bosses to let him use his talent, do his thing, and his bosses refusing him, telling him to just follow orders. Now, I like the point this makes, as Ted’s whole thing is about not being blindly obedient to the system. But it could have been told in one scene, not many. It started to feel pretty repetitive by the third time it happened. And it’s not like seeing it over and over built much suspense because, given the framework story, even those who didn’t follow the case as it was playing out know that eventually the higher ups will listen to Fitz.

I didn’t care for the framework story in general, either. Showing us what happened to Fitz later on, starting just before he goes to talk to Ted, who is awaiting trial, could be an interesting tale. But it’s a different tale than most of the rest of the episodes are telling. It gives away an ending unnecessarily, and is actually quite a bit less interesting than the investigation itself. Maybe it would have worked if it was saved for the conclusion, showing the arc of growth over time, rather than revealing it right away. But what’s here just doesn’t feel all that well planned out.

So, I like MANHUNT: UNABOMBER for its cast, performances, and style. But I probably won’t finish it because the pacing and story just doesn’t engage the way it should.

MANHUNT: UNABOMBER premieres this Tuesday at 9/8c on Discovery.

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