'Manhattan': WGN series follows 'nuclear' families

San Francisco ChronicleJuly 24, 2014 

John Benjamin Hickey and Ashley Zukerman compete in Manhattan.

  • 'Manhattan' premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on WGN.

The title of WGN America's new drama series may suggest the great American city, but in fact, Manhattan is set in a dusty, nameless town somewhere in New Mexico in the 1940s.

Of course, the series, created and written by Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) and premiering Sunday, is about the Manhattan Project, the bold research and development project that resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb.

Instead of focusing on the politics, the science and the better-known figures from history, Manhattan is a character-based drama about men and women whose lives were indelibly altered because of the years they spent in the New Mexico desert.

The Manhattan Project wasn't just a job for scientists like Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey, Law & Order: SVU), the lead scientist on the project, or young, intellectually ambitious Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman, Terra Nova), and not only because of the high level of secrecy required by the military. As the series begins, Isaacs and his young wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan, House of Cards ) are arriving at the makeshift, hardscrabble "town" set up in the middle of nowhere for the Manhattan scientists and their families.

There are two groups of scientists working on the project, the by-the-book, better-funded A group headed by Col. Alden Cox (Mark Moses, Mad Men) and the misfits headed by Winter. In other words, it's kind of like the frat boys versus the rejects in Animal House, but with atomic bombs instead of keg parties.

The competition among the two groups of scientists is intense, made more so by the fact that they are under constant scrutiny by the military. They aren't even allowed to tell their wives what they are working on, and among themselves, they refer to the end product of their research as "the gadget."

The situation is especially tough on the scientists' wives, even Liza Winter (Olivia Williams), Frank Winter's wife and a scientist in her own right. She quickly takes Abby under her wing, sympathizing with the young woman trying to create a livable home in what is basically an under-furnished wooden shack.

The wives may get along well, but their husbands are on opposite teams. Charlie is the wunderkind of the frat boy team, while Frank leads the misfits who, we know from history, end up with the "winning" process.

The show is directed by Thomas Schlamme, of West Wing fame. He and Shaw take care to allow the story to develop naturally, careful not to hit us over the head with obviousness as we learn more about the characters. Soon enough, we understand that this nameless town in the desert is a microcosm of the world, and the inhabitants, who are known as "nuclear families," are also nuclear families in a more contemporary definition.

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