I haven't read any other reviews of the new Discovery anthology series "Manhunt: UNABOMBER" yet, but I can guarantee there are going to be a lot of references to Shark Week, "Deadliest Catch" and other staples of the network. But those glib comparisons miss the mark at a time when viewers are becoming increasingly oblivious to such comparisons. If you're a regular viewer of Discovery, you're less concerned about whether or not a program is scripted or another example of the network's docu-observational shows. You care about whether it's good and whether or not it fits into the overall creative wheelhouse of the network.
To the latter point first. Discovery has had some success with true crime shows like "The Killing Fields" and "Manhunt: UNABOMBER" is a good fit for that type of series. And while a lot of true crime programming tends to skew heavily female, the story of the Unabomber and how he was caught feels more male and "Discovery-ish," even though that's not really a term.
It helps that "Manhunt: UNABOMBER" may be the best new series of the summer. The story of a profiler who loses himself while tracking down a criminal is so familiar it's almost a television trope. But this true story of how the Unabomber was captured is written so deftly that this true story unfolds in a way that puts most fictional crime stories to shame. At first glance, the thought of an eight-episode series on the story of the "Unabomber" might seem like overkill, but based on what I've seen so far (all but the final episode), there's not a padded moment in the production.
While the focus of the series is the "Unabomber," it's called "Manhunt: UNABOMBER" because the story is really about the efforts to identify and capture the bomber over a nearly 20-year period. Sam Worthington plays FBI Agent and Criminal Profiler Jim "Fitz" Fitgerald, a newly minted profiler who joined the case 16 years into the hunt. Despite his inexperience, he saw something no one else in the FBI could and he quickly begins battling with his superiors. The established FBI profile of the Unabomber had him identified as a barely educated, disgruntled airplane mechanic. Which turned out to be pretty much incorrect in every detail.
The show intercuts Fitz's early days on the case, supported by a loving wife Ellie (Elizabeth Reaser) and kids and scenes two years later, when Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany) is headed to trial. At that point, Fitz is living in a rural cabin by himself, hunting his own food and those scenes serve as a pretty good heads-up that no one is going to come out of this case unscathed.
I don't want to give much away, because the show is sprinkled with a lot of surprising little moments. But the cast of "Unabomber" is uniformly excellent, including Jane Lynch as former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno; Michael Nouri as Penthouse's Bob Guccione; Keisha Castle-Hughes as a street smart agent teamed up with Fitz and Mark Duplass as Kaczyinki's younger brother. In fact, the only performance I didn't much enjoy was the usually solid Chris Noth, who plays the FBI supervisor in charge of the Unabomber investigation. Noth seems to be playing...well, Noth. Or at the version of Noth you've seen in a bunch of other projects. He's not terrible, but this isn't a performance you'll want to savor.
I also don't want to ignore the efforts of veteran showrunner Greg Yaitanes, who also served as director and an executive producer. This is a complex story and Yaitanes makes the juggling of all story's many pieces seem effortless on the screen,
As I said at the top of the review, a lot is going to be made about whether Discovery's audience will embrace "Manhunt: UNABOMBER." Sure they will, as will Discovery's international audience. And it's easy to forget in these situations that Discovery is a global company with outlets in a lot of markets. This is the type of story that plays well everywhere, because at the end of the day, getting lost in your obsessions is a universal tragic story.
"Manhunt: UNABOMBER" premieres on Tuesday, August 1st at 9:00 PM ET/PT on Discovery.