Manhattan, the new WGN America series that takes place not in New York but inside the Manhattan Project that birthed the atomic bomb, is set in a WWII-era community built upon secrets and lies.
Few outside the town of Los Alamos, N.M., knew why so many scientists were congregating there and even many inside — specifically wives, children, Hispanic domestic help and the nearby American Indians — had no clue.
But it wasn’t just the big cover-up that concerns show creator Sam Shaw (a writer on Masters of Sex). It’s how that secret becomes embedded into the lives of a group of people, illuminating the fault lines in their often fractured relationships, as they wrestle with the morality of creating a nightmare weapon.
As such, judging from the first two episodes, Manhattan unfolds as an engrossing piece of social history.
Scientist Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman, The Pacific) arrives in Los Alamos, along with his wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan, House of Cards), with no idea what his job is. They find themselves dealing with the egos of older scientists like Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey, The Big C) and frustrated wives like Liza (Olivia Williams, An Education), and a world that can crush them at any time.
As a scientist (Eddie Shin) is informed when he is thought to have been stealing secrets, legal and constitutional niceties don’t apply in this little slice of America that, officially, doesn’t exist in the first place.
How accurate Manhattan is may be tough to discern for a contemporary viewer. But it’s darker and less soapy than might first be expected, and the look and feel of the era seem right.
Even though we know how this story ends — with mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki — it’s the journey that holds our interest.