WGN America’s Atomic-Era Drama ‘Manhattan’ Is Historical TV Done Right

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Let’s play a game. Think about what Mad Men does well. By watching the story of Don Draper, we’re watching a story about America — the show does an excellent job of using one man’s experience to show us an extraordinary period of change in American history. Now imagine that you want to write your own Mad Men. What time in American history proves to be a microcosm of the country?

If the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos and the birth of the atomic bomb come to mind, then you know that WGN America’s Manhattan, premiering on Sunday, July 27th, has the bones of what could be an incredible TV show. Created by Sam Shaw, a former writer for Masters of Sex (and in another life, a journalist for august publications like Harper’s) and directed by The West Wing‘s Thomas Schlamme (as his Wikipedia notes, he is “known for the walk and talk”), the first two episodes of Manhattan are remarkably assured and intriguing. Thy lead us into a labyrinth of genius outliers, our best and brightest scientists, who are brought out into the desert in New Mexico for a secret project in a makeshift town where, as it happened, our finger was on the button of American triumph and tragedy.

Starting in a dust storm illuminated by the lights of a car, scientist Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey, a man with a great face, wrinkles that speak to a lifetime of experience) is golfing at night, trying to work out something in his head. But before we know what’s driving him, we’re thrust into the clear light of day. Brilliant young scientist Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman) and his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) are new to this brand-new desert town, “the Hill,” having chosen the secret, mysterious route over the opportunities available in Cambridge. Once the couple are set up in their quonset huts, a battle starts brewing over Isaac’s brain: either he can work for the team that’s immersed in the bomb prototypes known as “Thin Man,” (ahem, click here for history spoilers) or he could possibly work under Winter and his rumpled crew, which includes lots of familiar-enough character actors, including Michael Chernis from Orange Is the New Black and Daniel Stern with a wizard’s beard.

Abby, meanwhile, is thrust into the hierarchies and gossip driving the wives’ corner of town, where they are basically frontier women, creating new lives out West and in the dark about the nature of their husbands’ work. Olivia Williams is a welcome presence as Frank’s wife Liza, a frustrated botanist with a PhD wearing pants in comparison to every other wife’s impeccable dress. Liza may be standing in for the smart, accomplished women who went out to Los Alamos, but we’ll see where they go with her character beyond the first two episodes.

It’s a fascinating world, the source of countless biographies, documentaries, books, and reports (including one of our favorite nonfiction books this year, The Age of Radiance ). The route that the show has chosen is putting fictional characters in the middle of this real-life story. Truth comes in at the sides: Robert Oppenheimer makes an enigmatic appearance in the pilot, and his name is invoked frequently. One of the secret projects is, again, codenamed “Thin Man.”

Winter is at the fulcrum of the story, a genius of science weighted down by the responsibilities of his job, keeping his family together, and the life-saving, war-ending greatness that he could be bringing to life. Sure, he could be neatly slotted in the “anti-hero” category but the wartime stakes are already very, very high, and that gives the show urgency. Hickey, a Tony winner, makes for a compelling lead, feeling lived-in and specific. The writing is strong as well — the characters, who are, on average, believably brainy, speak about many high-level ideas and ideals, but never the truth. Their true motivations are betrayed by the acting and the visuals — helped, of course, by the endless skies of the southwest. The result is very good TV that’s refreshingly thoughtful and complex.

There are a lot of TV stations right now competing for your attention and dollars. WGN America is in an upstart state (like several other channels currently premiering original work, from El Rey to WEtv), somewhat where AMC was in 2007, and a work like Manhattan, its second original series (after the campy debut of Salem), is worth seeking out as great TV to watch in the summer. It’s an intriguing and intelligent take on a seminal moment in American history, and I’m excited to see where the 13-episode season will go from its auspicious beginning.