Up and atom! It's time to discuss WGN America's latest original series Manhattan. Set in 1943, Manhattan follows a sequestered group of physicists racing to develop the first atomic bombs during World War II. Right now, you're probably worried there isn't room on your DVR for another slow-paced historical drama, but don't let that cloud your judgment. Manhattan easily earns a series pass for the way it blends scientific and political suspense with the project's emotional fallout on the scientists and their nuclear families.
Still fission for reasons to watch? Let us sway you:
1. The drama's built into the premise: Manhattan picks up 766 days before the first bomb was dropped, when scientists were struggling to develop a functional weapon under extreme pressure from the military. The workers were isolated in secret desert compound in Los Alamos, N.M., known merely as P.O. Box 1663, Site Y or the Hill. But no matter how much the military tried to keep the Manhattan Project under wraps, Soviet spies still managed to penetrate the program, creating a high-pressure, high-stakes environment overrun by paranoia.
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2. It's about fictional characters in a non-fictional world: Even though Manhattan focuses on real events, the showrunners didn't take liberties with the historical drama. With the exception of a brief cameo by J. Robert Oppenheimer in the pilot, all the characters in Manhattan are imagined. We're introduced to the world through the eyes of Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), a fresh-faced recruit who begins questioning the morality of the project once assigned to the development team lead by polished, bureaucrat favorite Reed Akley (David Harbour). Working opposite Akley is Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), a gruff, iconoclast whose science is unproven and who leads a ragtag team of underdogs developing an alternate bomb design. Guess whose team we're supposed to root for?
3. It's not just about the men: While the Manhattan Project was undoubtedly a boys club, Manhattan, thankfully, is not. In addition to a female physicist on Winter's team (a nod to real-life pioneering women such as Maria Goeppert-Mayer and Leona Woods), the show also gives due focus to the wives whose entire lives were uprooted for reasons their husbands are forbidden to explain. Olivia Williams is a true standout, playing Winter's wife Liza, an accomplished botanist who has set aside her own ambition for her husband's career.
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4. It isn't just about World War II: It might seem like Manhattan's premise includes a finite end — the bombs go off, the war ends, end of story — but that won't necessarily be the case. Manhattan begins demonstrating the toll the project takes on all those involved, particularly Frank Winter, as early as the pilot. The atmosphere of the classified town is dominated by isolation and distrust, not to mention the guilt that comes with building a weapon unable to distinguish between civilian and soldier. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world ushered in a new, more dangerous era, the consequences of which were exponentially felt among those in this bubble community who — wittingly or unwittingly — played a part in its creation. If Manhattan is successful, there will be plenty of stories to explore long after peace arrives. In fact, the Los Alamos National Laboratory is still in use today!
Manhattan premieres Sunday, at 9/8c on WGN America. Will you watch?