Discovery's eight-part series gets inside the head of the Ted Kaczynski, who sent mail bombs to people he never met — killing three and injuring 23 — from 1978-95. It offers some understanding of why he did what he did.
It empathizes with Kaczynski without sympathizing with him. And that's a tough feat to pull off. It's "a super delicate balance," as writer/producer Andrew Sandroski put it.
It's one thing to "really enter into the shoes" of FBI agent/profiler Jim Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington). It's quite another to do the same for Kaczynski (Paul Bettany), a murdering domestic terrorist.
"He wasn't the first domestic terrorist," said Sandroski. "But I think he's the first one that captured the attention of the entire country."
The 16 bombings were so seemingly random that there was no obvious target, which meant no one was safe.
And the terror targeted Utah. Twice. One bomb seriously injured Gary Wright at a Salt Lake computer store; the other, sent to the University of Utah, was safely defused.
"That had this unique threat that he could come into anybody's home at any time," Sandroski said. "I remember, when I was a kid, I was scared of the Unabomber because he could just send me a package. He could send anybody a package at any time and destroy you like that.
"I think that's part of what makes him so scary."
"Manhunt: The Unabomber" is, in a way, parallel stories that eventually intersect. It's the story of Fitzgerald's obsession with capturing the Unabomber. And it delves into Kaczynski's background, including a childhood trauma that could explain what started him down the path to be an anarchist/serial bomber.
"If you were making this as a movie, it would almost certainly become a thriller with dogged maverick cop chasing monster, right?" said Bettany. "But having eight hours allows the freedom to look at the domestic life of Special Agent Fitzgerald and the toll it takes on his family and his wife and his children. And also allows you to spend some time with Ted Kaczynski."
Including that childhood trauma.
Bettany made it clear neither he nor the show is "trying to sort of engender any sympathy for Ted, but certainly [they are] asking you to have empathy for this child. And what happened to that boy was very damaging."
Clearly, a lot of people suffer childhood traumas and don't start issuing manifestos decrying technology — let alone start murdering people they don't even know in an effort to make people read their manifestos.
"I think part of the tragedy of Ted is that the only way he could get people to read what he wrote was by bombing people," Sandroski said. "And when you bomb people, people don't take what you have to say seriously [because] they think you are crazy or know that you are crazy."
Yeah. Kind of an understatement.
Again, it isn't easy to focus on Kaczynski, to explain who he is and how he became a murderer without seeming to excuse him. When Sandroski calls him a victim, he's specifically referring to his childhood.
"We have to always bear in mind that this is a guy who mails bombs to people he's never met in the service of his philosophy, " Sandroski said. "And that, at the same time, he himself is a victim too and that he was a little boy with a bright future ahead of him, and something happened.
"What I was hoping for is a way for us to plug into that and feel the tragedy of Ted Kaczynski as part of the fabric of this show."
The two-hour premiere of the eight-hour "Manhunter: Unabomber" airs Tuesday on Discovery — 7 p.m. on DirecTV and Dish; 10 p.m. on Comcast.