'Manhattan': 5 Things to Know About the Atomic Bomb Drama

John Benjamin Hickey stars in WGN America's second original scripted drama, with the cast and creators previewing the series Wednesday at TCA.
WGN America

WGN America is going back to the past again for its second original scripted drama, Manhattan.

Manhattan centers on the mission to build the world's first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, N.M. It follows the brilliant but flawed scientists and their families as they attempt to coexist in a world where secrets and lies infiltrate every aspect of their lives. John Benjamin Hickey (The Big C) plays Frank Winter, the professor who is commissioned to help lead the Manhattan Project. Olivia Williams portrays his wife, Liza, while Ashley Zukerman plays Charlie, a hotshot new scientist who joins the project. Daniel Stern plays Frank's boss, Glen.

Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) created the series and exec produces alongside David EllisonDana Goldberg and Marcy Ross. Emmy-winning director Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing, Pan Am) also is on board as a writer-director; the drama was picked up straight to series and hails from Skydance Television, Tribune Studios and Lionsgate Television.

Producers told reporters Wednesday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour that the series provides a good mirror to reflect contemporary issues and technological advances helped pave the way for the "true life, science-fiction series," as Shaw called it.

Here are five things to know about Manhattan:

PHOTOS Summer TV Preview

1. The show is a slow burn. Shaw said that one of the advantages of being picked up straight to series — a growing trend as cable networks enter the original scripted space — is that they were able to pull back on the big reveals. "There's a thing that happens in the pilot process where you feel pressure to jam an episode-six cliffhanger into episode two and there's this sense that you're forcing an emotional experience onto a viewer who is just learning who characters are," he said. "We felt the freedom to slow down the storytelling. We had a dictum from the network, who said…'There were story turns we think you can hold on.' That's an exiting thing to hear as a writer and it's a note you almost never get in your lifetime."

2. Manhattan could continue on creatively even after World War II ends on the show. Shaw said the series was not conceived as a finite story that ends with the end of the war. "It's not a story about the end of WWII, it's a story about a birth of an era," he noted. The showrunner, a self-professed book and research nerd, immersed himself in the history of Los Alamos — both the scientists who worked there and their families and their interaction with the military. "Los Alamos was already really fraught with families and military in this bubble in the middle of nowhere and it became more interesting after the bombs were dropped." Williams noted that the region is still home to the best research center on Earth and hopes that she'll have her Manhattan job "well into my 80s."

3. Creating a real world. The series films in New Mexico at what Schlamme said was an old Army hospital "that was ready to be torn down and was filled with asbestos and cleaned." The producers and production team took 10 acres and created the 1940s-set world that the actors could walk into. "We wanted to create what it felt like for the men and women who were uprooted from the East and West Coast and plopped into the desert," he said.  

4. Real stories — and a few real-life people inspired the show. Shaw said that J. Robert Oppenheimer is — at least at the start — the only real-life person depicted on Manhattan, but that there could be others coming as the season unfolds. "This is not a great-men-of-history piece but we wanted to try and capture what history was like for other 7,000 people living in this town," he said. Among the issues set to be explored: anti-Semitism as well as the oppression women suffered in the era.

5. A good mirror. Asked what the appeal of historical shows on TV is (see Salem, Masters of Sex, Mad Men, etc.), co-star Stern said the shows offer an "interesting way to do a commentary on our society now," citing examples such as NSA spying or decisions about what war we fight in and drone activity. "It's an interesting way to bring up those topics with a little distance and fiction between it. There are a lot of issues we can't talk about that aren't as dramatic in the present that can lead to interesting storytelling and mirror our situation now." Added Schlamme: "Technology has helped that a great deal. TV has grown up a great deal. You don't have to restrict yourself and think about how am I going to set up a world in the '40s or [shows like] Game of Thrones or Pan Am. Twenty years ago, if you pitched a show in the '40s, it was much more difficult. There are all these stories we haven't told yet that are so applicable to present day lives." Added Hickey: "It's a great case: to protect the American way of life."

Manhattan premieres July 27 on WGN America. The series also will debut on Tribune stations across the country.