Of the many groups of viewers to which Discovery’s Manhunt: Unabomber appeals, the primary one seems like the group fascinated by the psychology of the extreme other. In its worst iteration, this fascination can be perverse and dangerous; at its best, it’s educational and almost restorative (communication between humans has always felt like the most essential part of any art form to me). Fans of Bryan Fuller’s recent Hannibal series (of which I am loudly a part) know the depths to which creatives can take us into the lives and minds of characters, fictional or otherwise, like Hannibal Lecter and the people that surround them—people who are social outcasts, who commit crimes on the legal scale that can also totally demoralize on the mental and emotional scales and who stand as ironic seekers of empathy. Hannibal was a huge success story from that perspective and navigated the allure of its psychopath without exploiting the natural curiosity we have for the sake of sensationalism. Other crime-thriller series of the last decade have been much less successful. And while Unabomber has concerns in addition to this—other strengths and weaknesses—it very much respects the delicacy of taking on Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany) and paints a truly interesting portrait of his character without resorting to targeting the audience’s worst fears of others and themselves just to evoke a response.
Contained in a relatively concise eight-episode arc, Unabomber attempts to pit Kaczynski against FBI profiler James Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington). Like with Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, we are asked to look at Fitz and Kaczynski as two sides of the same coin. The script draws attention to this early on in claiming that Fitz needs the Unabomber in his life—almost like this version of himself can’t exist without his nemesis. Visually, the series goes even further. The finale’s spectacular montage after Kaczynski has been cornered into pleading guilty has a top-down shot of Fitz’ car passing two arrows in a suicide lane—a symbol of the direction of these two characters’ paths and, possibly, how easy it might have been at one point to turn around to go in the opposite direction. This may be the only major area of Unabomber that comes across as imbalanced, however. While Kaczynski is given incredibly considered screen time (he appears much less often than Fitz, except in the showcase sixth episode, but is more fully formed overall), the psychological effect of this case on Fitz always feels at a distance from the audience, alluded to but never completely explored. We see Fitz’ marriage and professional relationships deteriorate because of his obsession, but the two main characters rarely mesh into one in the way the series wants them to, nor is there enough evidence (!) to show why this has taken over every aspect of Fitz’ life.
Otherwise, Unabomber is a surprise and welcome success on a network still trying to get off the ground with its original programming since taking a shot with the miniseries Klondike (2014). Huge credit goes to composer Gregory Tripi (The Knick) and director Greg Yaitanes (Quarry). Tripi’s score is so period-perfect that it feels like an inextricable part of Unabomber by the end of the run. Reminiscent of Michael Rubini’s work in Manhunter (sorry, but Hannibal references are hard to stop once you get going), the score haunts cliffhanger endings and amps up tense moments. Along with his recent work on Banshee and Quarry, Yaitanes has claimed top tier status with Genndy Tartakovsky as one of the absolute best action filmmakers working in television. The episode-four operation outside of the one newsstand in San Francisco that publishes the Washington Post and the eventual takedown of Kaczynski are obvious highlights, but just as impressive is the sequence in which Fitz is desperately trying to put together a strong enough case for Don Ackerman (Chris Noth) to present to Janet Reno (Jane Lynch) as time winds down before their meeting and Ackerman gets news of a dead lead. The camera remains surprisingly static—especially in the early episodes—but this only serves the moments of higher tension even better. Two particularly effective shots occur in the second and last episodes: one of Fitz working well past normal hours with a hallway and exit sign off to the right that later shows the first employees coming in the next morning, and the other of Fitz showing up to Ted’s cabin, framed in the doorway from behind the character. Where any kind of narrative underdevelopment takes place, these technical flourishes keep Unabomber from being anything but riveting on the level of spectacle.
As mentioned, Bettany’s Kaczynski has relatively little screen time, but this serves to make Bettany’s performance more memorable. An actor always able to express intensity and passion through a look, his work in Unabomber—especially in the sixth episode, where he gets to interact with some of the Montana locals—lends a ton of credibility to a cast that has several standout supporting and guest turns (most memorably from Keisha Castle-Hughes, Mike Pniewski and Mark Duplass). Fitz’ comparative shortcomings as a character bleed over into the performance slightly, giving Worthington harder material to make pop. Hollywood has tried and mostly failed to find the right vehicle for Worthington to break out as a household name, despite high-profile lead roles in major franchises. It’s great seeing him work in a different context in Unabomber, and if these episodes teach us anything about his strengths, it’s that he’s an exceptional reactionary performer. In many twist-and-turn narratives, characters get pieces of information that change the nature of the game at several points, and that trope is used extensively in Unabomber; but even just Worthington’s facial expressions in those moments of epiphany (combined with Tripi’s score) keep them from becoming too stale and clichéd.
Returning to the narrative, though, what drew me most into this story is how it pivots around language as a central theme, which is actually where Fitzgerald’s character gets the chance to shine. Viewers and critics alike will tire of a genre to an extent, leaving creatives with the challenge of breathing life into pre-existing structures. Unabomber makes the crime-thriller part of itself endearing because of how its central character goes about bringing down the antagonist. Filmmaking needs more scripts like this (and the recent film Arrival) that focus on something as acute as language and how it affects the stories we tell. As a forensic linguist, Fitz immediately stands out from the typical FBI profiler used in narrative works. Obviously, being adapted from the true events that Unabomber is based on means this was always going to be a part of the series, but the story really leans into the power of language for the better, giving us something new to consider in a genre we may enjoy but is pervasive in both TV and literature.
Touching on that, the fact that this is also historical fiction will both draw in many viewers and inevitably open criticisms for historical accuracy. The issue of “being faithful” to an adaptation, whether a fictional book or a real life event, has always frustrated me, because it generally feels like those who are criticizing are missing the point of watching the adaptation for what it is: someone’s personal take on the material. So, while Unabomber is meticulous with its accuracy in so many ways, the success of the series should not come down to total accuracy but to how well creator Andrew Sodroski and his team achieved his vision as creator. And the result? Unequivocal success. Any issues I have with this version of Fitzgerald are not a result of Sodroski making concessions and trying to appease an audience that wants this to be a true story about the Unabomber; these eight episodes are entirely the version of the story he wants to tell filtered through the creative team that’s been assembled, which, I think, is the sign of a good adaptation.
So, what now? Based on ratings, Unabomber is a success for Discovery, especially given how ambiguous viewership numbers are right now in determining actual popularity and especially for basic cable networks dipping their feet into scripted programming. Based on the work itself, too, Unabomber is a success—a worthwhile use of viewers’ precious time in an age when close to 500 scripted programs are appearing in the year. The most promising part as someone who writes about television is that Discovery has put out a show it believes in—that has the potential to be a long-running anthology series—that happens to take huge influence, consciously or not, from one of the best TV series of all time. Hopefully, we see more series, crime or otherwise, learn and adapt from Hannibal as a model, because there’s a lot to mine there—thematically, visually, aurally. Seeing another series in which Yaitanes directs each episode is another aspect I hope becomes a trend. The demand on a single director is harsh and time-consuming, but with series that are ten or fewer episodes, it’s proven to be both possible and hugely effective, as the visual consistency of Unabomber adds to its character and memorability. In the event that Unabomber gets lost in the shuffle when the year-end lists start showing up in December, it won’t be through any fault of the series—one which is confident about what it’s attempting and sidesteps so many of the obstacles that come with bringing a story like this to the screen.