By Paula Hendrickson
WGN America launched its first original scripted series, Salem, earlier this year. Apparently, the network’s programming executives have a thing for naming shows after popular American tourist spots, since its newest original series is called Manhattan.
The new show — which is better written than its predecessor and doesn’t stick any cast members in distractingly bad wigs — isn’t about New York. The title comes from the United States’ program to design and build an atomic bomb: The Manhattan Project.
WGN America also seems to like period dramas: Salem is set in the 1690s during the Salem witch trials; Manhattan is set in 1943.
During the height of World War II, the best minds in science were gathered into teams competing to develop the world’s first atomic bomb. The top-secret project meant they couldn’t even tell their families about their real jobs. As one character says in the pilot episode, even the vice president of the United States didn’t have a high enough clearance level to know what they were working on.
To help maintain secrecy, researchers, scientists and their families were relocated to Los Alamos, New Mexico, which was then in the middle of nowhere. In real life and on the show, J. Robert Oppenheimer — later to be dubbed the “father of the atomic bomb” – headed up the project. Because of the high concentration of Ph.D.s, the town was said to have the highest average IQ anywhere on the planet.
(Fans of SyFy’s former show, Eureka, have probably heard that line before. The fictional town of Eureka was pretty much inspired by the real-life community that came about through the Manhattan Project.)
Seeing characters like the brilliant Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) find inspiration in mundane objects is fascinating, but Manhattan isn’t just about science. It’s not just about characters working to find an end to a global war; it’s about families, secrets, and those secrets, and the desire to share them can be every bit as explosive as a bomb.
The first episode aired Sunday, but will repeat several times this week leading up to the second episode. It served more as an introduction to the characters and setting, but hinted at the toll such secrecy takes on entire communities. The new scientist in town, Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), hears arguments that the bomb will save more lives than it will take, but still seems to be conflicted about his new job — details of which he only learned after committing himself, and his young family, to the cause.
Details are everything in the style, setting and props of the beautifully-shot Manhattan. If the storyline and characters turn out half as well, Manhattan may put WGN America on the map in a way Salem (already renewed for a second season) didn’t quite do.
New episodes of Manhattan air Sundays at 9 p.m. Central and repeat several times per week.
Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Follow her on Twitter at P_Hendrickson and send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the July 30-Aug. 5, 2014, issue