TV Review: ‘Manhunt: Unabomber’ Showcases the FBI Struggle

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With the boom of peak TV, surprising shows are finding their way to smaller networks. A couple weeks ago, Discovery continued its foray into original programming with “Manhunt: Unabomber,” a new series discussing the hunt for the domestic terrorist. The miniseries takes a look at the hunt for the Unabomber, as well as the trial of the terrorist, Ted Kaczynski, as he heads to trial. The Unabomber went uncaptured for almost twenty years, sending his first bombs in 1979. While the show is an interesting look at the case, it is also imperfect in its construction and production.

While the series is about the Unabomber, our protagonist is James “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington). Fitz was one of the first FBI profilers to engage in linguistic analysis and used the Unabomber’s manifesto to craft an accurate profile. However, Fitz’s linguistic discoveries are met with skepticism by Don Ackerman (Chris Noth) and his protégé is Stan Cole (Jeremy Bobb). Simultaneously, we see 1997, where the Kaczynski (Paul Bettany) is in custody awaiting trial. There are other players still to emerge through after the first three episodes, with James D’Arcy, Jane Lynch, and Mark Duplass all set to premiere later in the season.

One of the stronger elements of the series is the struggle between cutting edge forensics and the traditional models of an investigation. In 1995, using forensics linguistics was an absurd concept. However, today it is commonplace in the construction of FBI profiles. The audience knows the importance of the work Fitzgerald is compiling, yet he’s met with massive resistance in the process. This battle is not only interesting, but it is compelling to watch the birth of an accepted science. Narratively, the breakthroughs are some of the most exciting moments in the series and keep you hooked.

While the struggle is engaging, the performances drive home the story we’re watching. The standout so far has been Bettany, who fully embodies Kaczynski as a psychotic serial killer. He dominates the screen when he’s on it and holds 4 or 5 of the best moments despite limited screen time. His “Poisonous Fruit” monologue is one of the better television moments of 2017. Meanwhile, Worthington is delivering a solid performance. The mirror held up between Worthington and Bettany showcases a link between the two men. The similarities, a want to be seen and lack of control, are exposed. It gives the audience an interesting divide and showcases how brilliance can be a gift used for good or evil.

While Noth is primarily used as a character to stand in Worthington’s way, Bobb gives a very strong performance. While he does come off as antagonistic at the time, there is an underlying level of frustration that’s palpable. When Worthington enters the investigation, the team has already been in place for years. The negativity and frustration of not being able to stop the Unabomber are borne out in Bobb’s Stan Cole. While he begins the series as an antagonist, it is clear he simply trying to stop a serial killer.

Overall, while the performances are solid, the technical aspects in play here don’t match the quality. There are some issues with sound design at times, and the cinematography can feel pedestrian at times. There are moments where the cinematography elevates itself, particularly in the push for a guilty plea from Kaczynski. However, the overall production design feels weak in a world where “Hannibal” and “Dexter” exist.

For viewers interested in the resurgence of true crime series, or simply crime television at all, “Manhunt: Unabomber” will scratch that itch. For those seeking more style over substance, the show falls a little short. It’s worth tuning in for the performances and sticking around for the gripping narrative in play. It’s an interesting and tension filled look at the manhunt for one of America’s most infamous criminals. With five episodes left, it is certainly worth checking out the first strong limited series of 2017.

What do you think? Have you enjoyed “Manhunt: Unabomber” so far? Let us know in the comments below! 

“Manhunt: Unabomber” airs on Tuesday nights on Discovery.

Grade: (★★)