WGN America’s ‘Manhattan’: Hard to build, easy to bomb

Hank Stuever (c) 2014, The Washington Post. “Manhattan,” a drama premiering Sunday night on the newly ambitious WGN America, valiantly tries to coax some radioactive clicks from whatever metaphorical half-life remains in the origin story of the bomb.

Set in 1943 in northern New Mexico, the show zeros in on a fictitious set of scientists and engineers who have been recruited into the real-life, top-secret Manhattan Project, where they race to perfect an atomic weapon that will end World War II but also uncork an irretrievable horror.

This is material that anyone with even a passing interest in military or Cold War history — or basic current affairs — will already know. Created and written by Sam Shaw (whose credits include writing some episodes of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”) and executive-produced and directed by Thomas Schlamme (who worked on “The West Wing”), “Manhattan” starts off by somewhat condescendingly assuming its viewers have never heard of the nuclear age. It also immediately burdens itself with the densest element on TV’s periodical table: portent.

From the writing to the performances to some overly artistic visuals and camera cuts, the first episode is crammed with self-seriousness. The dust blows, the wind howls, a scorpion skitters across the desk of a tormented scientist. There can be no mistaking that this is a serious show about serious men and the women who are fated to wonder what their super-smart husbands are so desperately doing.

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“What’s this place called?” asks young Harvard-educated physicist Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), pulling up to the gate to report for his new mystery job, with his wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), and their young son in tow.

“It ain’t,” replies a solemn-faced man.

Eventually, the place will be called Los Alamos, and even though “Manhattan” is filmed in New Mexico, it somehow looks less like the high-elevation mesas and forests of that particular locale and, thanks to a sun-saturated filter, instead appears as if the cast has been plunked down in the middle of a music video. “Manhattan” uses accurate wardrobe choices and plenty of ’40s-specific accoutrements, but it lacks the subtle, almost ineffable touch that separates a period drama from a costume party.

Some strong performances peek through anyhow, especially from “Manhattan” star John Benjamin Hickey, who played Laura Linney’s mentally ill brother on Showtime’s “The Big C” (but is perhaps more popularly known as the fickle CEO of ChumHum on CBS’s “The Good Wife”).

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Hickey plays Frank Winter, a brilliant nuclear physicist who runs a rag-tag team of brainiacs at the Manhattan Project; Frank’s team is in competition with a larger, more official group of scientists at Los Alamos tasked with building what is euphemistically called “the gadget,” with each team vying for more resources (plutonium, for starters) and the attention of the project’s director, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Olivia Williams co-stars as Frank’s wife, Liza, who holds a PhD in botany and nevertheless finds herself keeping house on the base and learning not to ask too many questions. (“It’s Kafkaesque!” the couple’s bored teenage daughter declares of life on a base no one knows exists.)

Taking a page from “The Right Stuff,” “Manhattan” is chivalrously, if nominally, thoughtful about the lives of its women characters (and, perhaps, as episodes evolve, its Hispanic and Native American characters), even if it mainly portrays the women as the weakest link in keeping the Manhattan Project classified. (Shaw’s storytelling seems heavily fixed on the security paranoia that envelopes Los Alamos.)

Frank is motivated to build the bomb to stave off the staggering number of America’s war casualties; Shaw’s script makes sure the character takes every opportunity to remind viewers of the death toll in a lecturing tone. Charlie, the new hire, has the added worry of being related to Polish Jews who’ve disappeared, and he is more philosophical — or at least suitably unnerved — by the work going on around him: “What about the next war?” he asks. “What happens when Stalin’s got one? China? The Shah of Iran?”

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This would all be serviceable enough if “Manhattan” were made simply to help substitute teachers fill time in an American history class, but it’s instead being heavily promoted by WGN America as a bold work of estimable television. It’s not that, but compared with the network’s cheesy freshman effort, “Salem” (which has been renewed for a second season), “Manhattan” is certainly a couple of steps up.

And although it’s not fair to quibble with a show’s very existence, I wonder if there could have been a better, more provocative drama to be had in other stories of the bomb: What about an ensemble drama set in Hiroshima in 1945? Or a series about the anti-nuke movement in the 1980s? (I’ll even throw in a free title with that one: “99 Luftballons.”) Or maybe a series about the Air Force men and women tasked with the psychologically stultifying, eerie work of manning the nation’s technologically archaic missile silos and launch-control bunkers, a mission that was recently rocked by a test-cheating scandal?

Even with its flaws, “Manhattan” might find its formula. The second episode is already brisker and more subtly intriguing in places than the first — exciting, even. Still, I can’t shake the worry that, left to its own devices, “Manhattan” will soon deploy the doomsday weapon of all overblown historical dramas: sepia tone. (And if that happens, duck and cover.)

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“Manhattan” (one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on WGN America. (For encore presentations, check local listings.)