Historical Drama is the Bomb
“Manhattan” on WGN
A lot of TV shows have been shot here in New Mexico. But most of them (“Longmire,” “Killer Women,” “The Night Shift”) aren’t actually set in the Land of Enchantment. The best, arguably most “New Mexico” TV series—AMC’s late, lamented “Breaking Bad”—stirred up a fair amount of controversy among locals. Did it depict Albuquerque in a “positive” light? (“Who cares? It’s a great show!” being the correct answer.) Now comes WGN’s New Mexico-shot and New Mexico-set series “Manhattan.” Does it portray New Mexico any better? Maybe, depending on your political and historical bent. In terms of quality, though, it’s a worthy successor to “Breaking Bad” as our state’s Official TV Series.
Chicago-based superstation WGN has only recently made the jump to original programming (as opposed to “In the Heat of the Night” reruns). The historical fantasy series “Salem” was the first, premiering in April of this year. “Manhattan,” WGN’s second attempt at a scripted series, is a major step toward legitimacy for the hardly fledgeling network.
Although it lacks the budget of HBO series like “Game of Thrones” or “True Detective,” “Manhattan” is a major investment on the part of WGN, which has pumped plenty of care and resources into the project. Set in 1940s-era Los Alamos, the series traces the run-up toward building the world’s first atomic bomb. At the time Los Alamos was America’s “secret city,” a clapboard-and-quonset-hut construct hidden in the middle of New Mexico’s high desert. Officially, it didn’t exist. Scientists working there weren’t even allowed to tell their families why it existed or what they were doing.
Writer-creator Sam Shaw (“Masters of Sex”) and director Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”) have created a smart, surprisingly tense weekly drama that steers clear of any “soap opera” melodrama. Most of the many storylines center around Frank Winter (the great John Benjamin Hickey from “The Big C” and “The Good Wife”). Frank’s the weary, haunted head of a high-IQ research team struggling to invent the A-bomb. Frank knows exactly how many American soldiers are dying every day in World War II. Shave one day off the development of the bomb, and he saves that many lives. Unfortunately the government has pitted several scientific teams against one another, elimination-competition-style. Frank’s ragtag team of geniuses has the best idea, but they’re far from the most diplomatic and get passed over, time and again, for Los Alamos’ glad-handing A-team.
The series finds drama not only in the race against time to build the bomb, but in the weird, behind-the-scenes domesticity of this artificial city. Olivia Williams (Rushmore) stars as Frank’s wife, a brilliant scientist in her own right, whose field of study (botany) is severely underappreciated in this environment (but could lead to some shocking discoveries). The boredom, isolation, outright sexism and iron-handed secret-keeping of Los Alamos are all vividly delineated. Also amping up the tension are some gritty spy games involving overeager, Nazi-hunting government agents.
The diverse cast (including Daniel Stern as an old-school egghead, Ashley Zukerman as a wide-eyed new wunderkind and Eddie Shin as a suspiciously Asian scientist) is topnotch. The highly detailed sets are engrossing. The writing is sharp. The direction is tight. This is finely tuned, highly addictive television. In other words: “Manhattan” won’t remain a secret for long.
“Manhattan” premieres Sunday, July 27, at 7pm on WGN.
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