I decided to look at Manhattan, AZ and Eureka* back-to-back since they both center around police officers finding themselves in strange, new towns. Both fit squarely into the Town with a Dark Secret trope. (See also Haven.) The similarities go even further; both Daniel of Manhattan, AZ and Jack of Eureka have teenage children with bad attitudes and are recently separated from their wives (one by death, the other by choice). Each meets a series of oddball people including a hard ass female law enforcement official. And yet, these shows could not be more different.
The first word that comes to mind in describing Manhattan, AZ is “wacky.” It’s wacky in the way that Pushing Daisies was wacky, but with an irreverence reminiscent of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia with a dash of My Name is Earl. Unfortunately, Manhattan, AZ predated all of these, so I can’t image how it would have been described in the fall of 2000.
The clash of serious subjects and ridiculousness is almost confusing for the first 2-3 minutes of the pilot. The protagonist, Daniel Henderson (Brian McNamara), narrates certain events but what is seen on screen doesn’t quite match up. Once you get the hang of this, you can’t help but wonder where it’s going to go next.
Daniel describes his perfect life in the perfect house with his perfect wife, perfect son and perfect job. The job is as an under cover officer for the LAPD, where we see Daniel and other officers prepping for “Operation Thong Sausage,” a prostitution sting. The seriousness with which Daniel treats this assignment juxtaposed with his ridiculous appearance in an evening gown and wig is one example of the show’s exercise in contrasts. His wife, Charlie pursues the “insignificant little hobby” of chasing down Dolphin poachers. When she dies in a diving accident and is canned as tuna (her name is Charlie, get it?), an event to which he reacts by watching “anything with Alec Baldwin in it” while his son stuffs his face and plays video games.
As Daniel continues his narration, describing his decision to move to Arizona and take a new job he tells us, “everything looked different,” and suddenly a different actor (Vincent Berry) is playing the kid. This is the kind of apropos-of-nothing joke that litters the script. As father and son land in Manhattan, Arizona about six minutes in, the show shifts from voice-over to ordinary dialogue. They meet the mayor, Jake Manhattan, played by Chad Everett (for whom the town is named… I guess?) and learn about Area 61, essentially just Area 51. (The name is trademarked… I guess?)
Daniel soon learns that a lot of the neighborhood pets are turning up with missing right hind legs, a scandal the townspeople blame on the “government guys over at Area 61.” In an absurd town hall meeting scene, Atticus returns the missing animal limbs and takes responsibility for the crimes. The town of Manhattan has the same small town feel of Eureka, but the people are strange, not in a like-able way but just plain strange. It is hard to sympathize with these characters–even the son, who we know is struggling with major change.
Daniel soon figures out that Atticus is just creating drama to convince his dad to move them back to L.A. and hasn’t actually harmed any animals. The mystery of the week is wrapped up pretty quickly and easily. Being a comedy and only half an hour long, this pilot focuses more on introducing a tone and style, with a few laughs–if you’re into it’s particular brand of humor. The single-camera style and absence of a laugh track differentiate it from the typical sit-com, so it takes a little adjustment. It doesn’t have the benefit of Eureka’s two hours to subtly build character and setting. Based on the presence of Area 61 we’re expecting some type of alien plot, yet aliens don’t figure into the pilot at all. It’s a little hard to see where this is all going. It didn’t go far, in fact–the show only lasted for eight episodes. From this, it doesn’t appear to have been any great loss.
*I’ll be posting about Eureka within the next few days!