WE tv’s The Divide, however, is a very strange choice. Last month, the network — whose initials once stood for “Women’s Entertainment” — announced that it was rebranding itself to be more inclusive of men; last week, it aired its first scripted drama series. The Divide is heavy stuff for WE tv, and an odd place to start as the network enters the scripted world. The legal drama centers on the death penalty conviction of two white men who were found guilty of murdering a black family in a predominately white neighborhood. The Divide is full of racial tension, even outside of the actual murder; a white advocate from the “Innocence Project” seeks to overturn the conviction, much to the dismay of the black District Attorney whose career was made on the case.
It doesn’t fit on WE tv, among Marriage Boot Camp and L.A. Hair, but that’s not the only reason it’s jarring. It’s also a deftly crafted narrative choked with moral ambiguity, and one that exists entirely in a gray area. Originally developed as a pilot for AMC in 2012, The Divide might be WE tv’s attempt at chasing prestige (much like Satisfaction is USA Network’s), though it’s not quite as blatant or extreme in its ambitions, and it’s a show to keep your eye one. If successful, it could help with WE tv’s attempt to be seen as more than just reality shows for women.
Finally, there’s Manhattan, premiering this Sunday. WGN America had a rough introduction to scripted programming with Salem, a witch drama that slowly got better but never really became great (though it was renewed). This second attempt is much better. Manhattan takes place in Los Alamos, New Mexico in the 1940s and centers on the race to build the first atomic bomb. It’s a beautifully shot period piece, and one that will inevitably draw comparisons to Mad Men. The scientists and their families are the main focus of the show. Outside of the built-in drama of the atom bomb is even more compelling personal drama: trying to make sense of the secretive desert where everyone lives, the deception between families, the rifts between couples who can’t fully open up about their work lives, and just a general sense of trying to live in a world where everything is under wraps. WGN America is the most difficult network to parse, and the premiere of Manhattan doesn’t make it any easier, but it’s a great watch.
It’s exciting to see so many networks test the waters with bigger projects — especially channels like Lifetime, which I secretly love — and it will be fascinating to learn what the end results are for each of them, even if it’s a mixed bag. For some of these shows, the execution isn’t perfect, but the experimentation is welcome. Hopefully even more networks will follow suit.