'Manhattan': TV Review

WGN America
A gripping, strongly acted series well worth seeking out.

A compelling slice of shadowy American history that should help WGN America win new viewers.

It's a sign of robust, almost embarrassingly good fortune in the television industry when the arrival of yet another show worth watching could make viewers wonder where they'll find the time to watch it.

You can count WGN America as one of the new players in the scripted arena who is doing better than expected. After recently launching its first series, Salem, a genre drama about the witches of Salem with some freaky turns in the history, WGN now adds the weightier and impressive Manhattan to its résumé.

Created and written by Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex), and directed superbly by veteran Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing), Manhattan kicks off with two gripping episodes that highlight a strong cast.

The series’ title refers to the Manhattan Project, the United States' effort to build a nuclear weapon that would not only win World War II but, for the scientific dreamers who made it happen, perhaps end all wars.

The government recruited a horde of the greatest technical minds on the East Coast and secretly moved the scientists and their families to P.O. Box 1663, an unmarked outpost in the desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico. "Welcome to nowhere," a Native American tells the wandering young scientist Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), a winner of the prestigious Forbes Prize plucked from the Harvard physics department.

He's the boy wonder, wooed by two competing camps inside Los Alamos (the project is so secret even the vice president doesn't know it exists). He signs up with Dr. Reed Akley (David Harbour), who, thanks to his ample staff and high-quality equipment, heads the team with the best chance of coming up with the bomb design that will please Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London). On the other side is the passionate but angst-ridden Dr. Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey).

Winter has a ragtag crew of scientists and lacks Akley’s cool demeanor. He also appears to be succumbing to the pressure of building a bomb, becoming more insular and distant despite calm guidance from his wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), who has a Ph.D. in botany from Barnard and never expected to be relegated to a supporting role for her husband. In contrast, Isaacs' wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), is younger and less worldly, but is immediately unhappy about this strange, harsh life out in the desert.

Another standout in the cast is Daniel Stern as scientist Glen Babbit, who recruited Winter from Princeton and backs him at Los Alamos despite his erratic behavior.

What Manhattan has going for it is the built-in tension of the arms-race scenario: If the American scientists don't build the bomb, Germany will, and in the meantime hundreds of American soldiers are dying every day. What you might think would work against Manhattan — the fact that the Manhattan Project was successful and relatively short-lived, so how can you sustain a series? — was explained away by the show’s creators, who, at the recent Television Critics Association summer press tour, noted that even though the story is based on facts, only Oppenheimer is a real figure. Everybody else is fictional, and Shaw’s ambition is to create a sense of life at Los Alamos, where secrets, lies and the hardships of being cut off from the rest of the world begin to take their toll.

Though Salem was enjoyable (and odd), it was clearly a genre drama with limited appeal, whereas Manhattan aims to paint on a larger canvas and flaunt an assured sense of identity. With 13 episodes set for the first season, it may be time to find out if you get WGN America in your cable or satellite package (odds are you do).

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine