Remember when nostalgia used to signify a comforting escape into the past? It hasn't been the same since Mad Men took us beneath the surface glamour to expose the grim consequences of chasing and selling the American dream. WGN America's bold new period drama Manhattan (Sunday, 9/8c) goes even further, eschewing the romantic veneer altogether in a gritty story of scientific mavericks operating in extreme circumstances. Looking back at a bygone time (World War II) with a jaundiced eye, the ambitious Manhattan is far more serious in intent than the channel's more recent effort at historical-fiction original programming, the lurid Salem.
The title of Manhattan refers to the "Manhattan Project," in an evocative dramatization of the Los Alamos, N.M., incubator in which a concentration of top physicists and their families are sequestered in a secret desert military compound as part of a desperate crusade to develop the first atomic bomb before our enemies. "Welcome to nowhere," whiz-kid recruit Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) is told upon arriving with wife and kid in July 1943 at this desolate, dust-choked hotbed of feverish invention and paranoid isolation. Impressive location filming in sun-baked New Mexico — Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing) films the solid script of series creator Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) — drives home the stark intensity of this community's classified purpose.
As the men (and one woman scientist) brainstorm what's code-named "the gadget" on rival teams, with suspicion of spy activity and treason adding to the tension, their families live in an unblissful ignorance, chafing at life in what amounts to a prison camp. "Everything is a secret! It's Kafka-esque!" rants the teenage daughter of the most driven team leader, Frank Winter (an excellent John Benjamin Hickey), whose daily tallies of the escalating war dead remind everyone of the high stakes involved in creating the world's most lethal weapon.
Manhattan instantly qualifies WGN America as a significant new player in the increasingly crowded arena of top-tier content producers, adding to this summer's already overwhelming volume of new series worth watching. I empathize with those who may be nostalgic for the days when the TV playing field was simpler and less cluttered, but this is a pretty good problem to have.
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BATTLE OF THE SEXES: Any given week, Showtime's Masters of Sex is one of the most provocative and emotionally compelling dramas anywhere on TV. But this weekend's episode (Sunday, 10/9c), written by Amy Lippman and directed by Michael Apted, is especially strong, one of the series' best yet, a terrific showcase for Michael Sheen (Dr. Bill Masters) and the Emmy-nominated Lizzy Caplan (his muse Virginia Johnson) as partners-turned-secret lovers whose tryst in a hotel suite becomes a riveting psychosexual mini-play of role-playing and character revelation. As a classic prizefight plays out on the TV (the December 1959 light-heavyweight bout between Archie Moore and challenger Yvon Durelle), Bill and Virginia spar and make love, drawing blood — metaphorically and otherwise — as the aloof doctor finally lets down his guard, revealing aspects of his traumatic childhood with a bullying father.
"I took it like a man," Masters reflects of his torturous passage to manhood, memories ignited by a controversial new case in which a baby is delivered at the hospital with ambiguous genitalia, causing the impassioned doctor to clash with the baby's irate, repulsed dad. What does it mean to be a man, or a woman, in this sexually repressed society of the late '50s? Those questions have never been explored more forcefully or memorably on this captivating series. It's an hour of can't-miss TV.