WGN’s New Series Manhattan is a Dramatic Blast from the Past

WGN’s “Manhattan” stars Olivia Williams, John Benjamin Hickey, and Alexia Fast.

WGN’s “Manhattan” stars Olivia Williams,
John Benjamin Hickey, and Alexia Fast.

During World War II when I was in the Army stationed for a while at Camp Pickett, Virginia, I mainly had a job selecting candidates for Officer Candidate School. But a strange task was also given to me. I was told to cut orders to send certain personnel to an unknown location in the Southwest U.S. I noticed that the men selected, by the top brass way above my stripes, curiously all had similar engineering backgrounds. So in the middle of the war, instead of being sent to the European Theater or the Pacific, these smart guys were going to an unknown location in the middle of the desert in New Mexico— Los Alamos.

Now we all know where they were going, and what they had to do. But back then without the knowledge of Congress, the vice-president, or the American people, the “Manhattan Project” had brilliant scientists, engineers, and soldiers living in a makeshift isolated community. They were under enormous pressure to create the first atomic bomb. What they did changed the world forever.

It is a situation ripe with great dramatic stories, and now cable’s WGN has premiered its new series Manhattan (airing Sundays at 10pm), to tell a fictional tale of the people caught up in that top secret weapons race. Manhattan was one of the best shows to be presented at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour.

The 13-episode show does not question FDR’s decision to develop the bomb, or follow around J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb.”  Instead it tells fascinating stories about fictional families who were affected and sometimes torn apart by secrets, according to the show’s creator-writer-producer Sam Shaw and director-producer Thomas Schlamme. They were on hand for the TCA interview panel, along with cast members John Benjamin Hickey as lead scientist Frank Winter; Olivia Williams as his wife Liza; Ashley Zukerman as Charlie Isaacs; Rachel Brosnahan as his wife Abby; and Daniel Stern as Glen Babbit, mentor to the scientists.

Shaw said the show is not an allegory for current politics, but telling this historic story “has a lot to say about this moment in time [and] it’s a story about a birth of an era. Oppenheimer is the only historical figure who appears in the first episode, and there may be others over the course of the season. But although it is set in a world that is carefully researched and we make painstaking efforts to be as faithful to history and science as we possibly can, this is a story that captures the emotional truth, and as much of the texture of a time and place populated with fictional characters.”

When asked if the government is cooperating with the production, Schlamme reported, “The government is not restricting us in any way. So, from my point of view, they are cooperating. But we haven’t really asked for anything from the Department of Defense. The research we’ve done has come from government files that we were able to access and read and use to our benefit.” It’s also an era that touches Schlamme personally, as he revealed “both my parents fled Nazi Germany.”

Star Olivia Williams revealed that the cast has benefited from filming in New Mexico and visiting the museum at Los Alamos. She said, “There is a historical society, and there are many documented testimonies of the people, physicists, wives, the children, and anybody who lived there. Anecdotes that we found interesting I emailed to Sam, and quite often, they appear in the stories. So many of the events in the story, particularly the good anecdotal ones, the ones that are fun to play as an actor, are based on the experiences of people who actually lived there and established this secret base.”

Shaw said what he finds fascinating is “sometimes we talk about this story as a true life science fiction story, and when you think about it, it could be an Asimov novel, the greatest minds in the world plucked up from their lives, uprooted and moved to this secret city, a kind of faux suburban bubble on top of a dead volcano in the middle of nowhere to build a device that will either save the world or end it.”

If you had told me about it when I was cutting orders, I would have said you were nuts.