A feature-film-quality effort from the casting on down, “Manhunter: Unabomber” easily represents Discovery Channel’s best foray into scripted TV – a taut, gripping account that touches upon aspects of the investigation many have doubtless forgotten or, more likely, never knew.
At first blush, this fact-based production threatens to be a tad too familiar – seeming like the real-life version of Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” in which the brilliant profiler pays a price for his ability to look into the mind and soul of a killer, while chafing at bureaucratic blindness.
Stick with it, though, and this eight-part limited series becomes an engrossing deconstruction of the Unabomber case, including how the aforementioned FBI profiler, Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (“Avatar’s” Sam Worthington), employed then-nascent techniques of dissecting speech quirks in his quarry’s notorious Manifesto to unearth him.
Moving back and forth in time, the project receives a welcome jolt when Paul Bettany finally shows up as Ted Kaczynski – wild-eyed and feral in appearance but almost serene, convinced he can outsmart the courts and justice system after having evaded detection for so long.
It’s Fitz, ultimately, who’s brought back to close the deal, with his former boss (Chris Noth) of the UNABOM Task Force asking that he use his insights to help secure a guilty plea, avoiding the risk of a jury trial that could provide Kaczynski a forum to spout his views – or worse, an acquittal.
Fitz’s story does lead down expected corridors, exacting a toll on his relationship with his family. But the lens broadens to include other elements of the story, including Kaczynski’s brother David (Mark Duplass), who reluctantly wound up turning him in, albeit in somewhat roundabout fashion.
There’s a sobering moment when Fitz describes the Unabomber to David, saying, “I know him like I know myself.” None of that, however, spares Fitz professionally from the ladder-climbing and butt-covering that surrounds this sort of high-profile case.
Beyond the central roles, the producers have done an especially good job casting small parts of the more recognizable figures, such as Jane Lynch as Attorney General Janet Reno and Michael Nouri playing Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, who volunteered to print the manifesto.
True crime has become all the rage of late, whether in expanded documentary form (a la “Making a Murderer”) or drama (see “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and NBC’s upcoming Menendez brothers series).
Not every case lends itself to that sort of expansive treatment, but the Unabomber is surely one of them. And while the subject matter is a big part of the battle, “Manhunt” – produced and directed by Greg Yaitanes – builds it out into a solid, old-fashioned crime yarn, exploring the grinding nature of investigative work in a way a one-and-done procedural can’t.
Discovery, meanwhile, is still feeling its way in terms of where scripted drama fits on a network primarily known for reality fare, from “Shark Week” to “Naked & Afraid.” Still, the message that “Manhunt: Unabomber’s” protagonist ultimately gleans from this first-rate series is one the network should take to heart: Do your job well, and the rest usually takes care of itself.
“Manhunt: Unabomber” premieres Aug. 1 at 9 p.m. on Discovery Channel.