With Manhattan, WGN America will double its original programming output, but while Salem – which was renewed for season 2 after three episodes – has been a modest hit for the nascent cable network, it seems as if they are courting more than viewers with Manhattan.
A period drama from Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) and frequent West Wing director Thomas Schlamme about the Manhattan Project (the gargantuan effort to build the atomic bomb), Manhattan feels ready made to seek critical praise due to the show’s apparent focus on the family lives of the people who worked and lived within and beside that project.
Here’s the series’ synopsis:
Set in Los Alamos, N.M., at the Manhattan Project during the race to build the world’s first atomic bomb, “Manhattan” explores the cost of secrets and the corrosive effect they have on individuals, families and their relationships.
In an effort to attain a bit of dramatic license, Manhattan will not center on the likes of General Lesley Groves, Richard Feynman and the other real scientific heavyweights and public figures that were involved with the Manhattan Project; instead it will tell the story through the eyes of fictionalized characters, though Robert Oppenheimer, the famed project leader, will appear as a recurring character.
At its height, the Manhattan Project counted more than 120,000 workers, but only a very select few knew about the project’s intentions, putting in place the barrier that existed between the scientists who were central to the project, and every other person in their lives, including spouses and friends. That barrier is also the thing that seemed to inspire this series’ focus on those families, rather than grander moral questions about the intent of the Manhattan Project; a direction that might have held less potential for longevity and broad appeal.
Here’s Schlamme in an interview with USA Today on using fictional characters and on the questions that that barrier raised about life in Los Alamos:
“It wasn’t so much about telling the factual truth, but telling the emotional truth of what was going on there, what it felt like to be in this place where once you entered, you couldn’t leave; what if felt like to be transported from a rather traditional lifestyle into this kind of a POW camp that was all in transition, with no sidewalk, no addresses, [...] What would that be like for the individual who went there? Where did the kids go to school? What did your family life feel like? What was your relationship to your co-workers? What was the level of competition? And what did those secrets do to you? Those are the stories that haven’t been told about Los Alamos.”
Starring John Benjamin Hickey, Olivia Williams, Daniel Stern, Ashley Zukerman, Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher Denham and Harry Lloyd, the cast of Manhattan is more of the “I know that face”/character actor variety than one that is filled with bankable stars. A similar approach was taken with Mad Men in AMC’s earliest days, and some might argue that it helped those actors fade into the period and their roles as the show’s awe-inspiring writing and design took the lead.
Will Manhattan have – as both a series and as a tentpole for WGN America – even a small sliver of the success that Mad Men has attained when all is said and done? Execution is, of course, the truest challenge, but after an enticing trailer and an interesting base, the show has our attention.
Manhattan debuts on WGN America Sunday July 27th @10PM ET