After airing its first original TV drama about the Salem witch trials…but with real witches… WGN America started its second drama series last night with Manhattan, a drama about physicists in World War II being gathered together to create an atomic bomb.
At first glance, the two shows may not have anything in common. However, they do: in Salem, people are isolated in a new world, letting their fears about witches drive them apart. In Manhattan, scientists are also isolated in a new world (Los Alamos, NM), letting their secrets drive them apart from those they love
Manhattan is interesting not only in how the bomb gets created, but how making the most powerful weapon at that time affects scientists and their families who are under complete secrecy over what they are doing. Those who are sent can’t tell their own families what they are really doing, while wives and children are basically there, susceptible to temptations and anything to cut the boredom. There’s also a lot of paranoia, when one wife discovers someone is reading their mail, and an employee is arrested on suspicion of revealing secrets. It’s a World War II story that isn’t told very often
The show centers on two men who are fictionized versions of people who were there. Physicist Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) is part of the project. His obsession with the work puts strains on his marriage to Liza (Olivia Willians, Dollhouse). She is a trained botantist, but only a housewife in Los Alamos. That’s shown when she tires to explain to a soldier how corn could be grown even in the desert. They’re joined by a 17 year old daughter, Callie (Alexia Fast), who hates her new home. She calls the situation Kafka-esque, while Liza says at least Callie is reading. Winter is haunted by what he is doing, and what he has to do to have his bomb design being considered by the military
Winter is joined by Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman), an up-and-coming scientist who recently wrote a paper that impressed everyone—except Winter. He’s caught the eye of Reed Akley (David Harbour), who wants to be the man to build the A-bomb, rather than Winter.
How Winter and Isaacs are introduced in the show is interesting, Winter is hitting golf balls in the desert at night, and holding a ball gives him a new idea for a bomb design that could be quicker to make. Isaacs is introduced with his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), trying to find their new home with a road map.
Their marriages will also be featured. While Liza is trying to get Frank to tell her what he is doing, he can’t because it’s classified. She gives him the example of the purple orchid, that can’t grow without a partner. Charlie, meanwhile, tries to assure Abby that his new job is worth the sacrifice, but there’s also a need to prove himself, especially to Winter, The two men do have an interesting discussion at the end, about what happens in the next war, where others may have what they’re trying to build.
Olivia Williams, who was last seen on TV as the head of the Dollhouse, does a fine job as the very patient Liza. While she understands the nature of Frank’s job, she is desperate to be connected to him somehow. He is aware of what she is trying to do, but he can only confess to one of the maids in the town…one who doesn’t know a word of English.
There’s other interesting characters, like Daniel Stern playing Glen Babbit, a father figure to Winter and the one who asked him to join him at Los Alamos.
Very few actual people will be depicted in the show, but J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Daniel London, will appear briefly.
So how could a show about the race to create the A-Bomb relate to today? Lots of ways: the need for secrecy, the making of a weapon of mass destruction and how that will affect those tasked with making it, and the fear that others may try to get it. These are fears that never get old. This isn’t about scientists gathering together to build a weapon for democracy. It’s what they have to do to get that chance, even if they’re under immense pressure. While the show is expected to show the timeline right up to Hiroshima, it would be interesting to see if the show looks at what happens to them after the war ends. For now, Manhattan is an unusual look at the creation of one of the most important creations in history, and its true impact before, during and after it is made. Let’s just say the fallout the bomb creates wasn’t just in Japan.
Manhattan airs Sunday nights at 10 PM Eastern, 7 PM Pacific on WGN America. If the channel is not available where you live, Hulu Plus will be streaming episodes the day after, then show episodes on the free Hulu site later that week. Deadline has the details.