A disheveled man in a brown suit stands poised in the dark. He hits a golf ball into a field of fog or maybe a sandstorm, backlit by the headlights of his automobile. Pausing before teeing up a second ball, the man stops as if struck by an idea. He fingers the golf ball, rushes to his car and speeds away. The suit, the car and the lower thirds tell us it’s July 1943 – 766 days before Hiroshima.
This is the opening of WGN America’s new series, Manhattan, which premiered Sunday night. The shady drama is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico, at the 1940s site of the development of the atomic bomb, or the Manhattan Project. The man in the brown suit is Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), a (fictional) physicist who heads up one of two rival teams working to develop the surreptitiously-named “gadget.” Winter’s boss has recruited a young physics prodigy Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman), whose published work has astounded even the bigwigs on the base. Isaacs’ expertise is more than welcome as the team faces the next phase in the project.
The series will chronicle not only the slow march of the bomb’s development, but the struggles of the families contractually bound to remain through the end of the war within the confines of P.O. Box 1663 – the address with no name and no stated purpose. Women in particular are kept in their dark, their husbands and fathers pressured by threat of arrest to tell their families nothing.
As demonstrated in the pilot, for many it is a veritable prison camp of secrets, where only a few know what is going on, and the rest are left to speculate and hope for an imminent escape. The institutionalized lying makes its way from work life to home life; one can imagine that it won’t be just chemicals reacting and exploding in this town.
Winter’s wife, Liza (Olivia Williams) is a PhD-holding botanist who fights with the army produce supplier at the market, waxes philosophical about hybrid chrysanthemums and labels herself with the predictable idiom, “I’m not most women.” It would have been an eye roll-worthy observation if I didn’t like her so much already.
With the exception of a spectacular Rachel Brosnahan as Isaacs’ wife, Abby, most of the other women on the show are dismissed in favor of the show’s heavily masculine entourage. There is one female scientist, Helen (Katja Herbers), but not one minute of the pilot focuses on her. I hope that we’ll get more of her story. The contrast between the “scientists” and the “computers,” and between husbands and wives has been drawn so sharply, I can only imagine that the writers (led by Masters of Sex creator Sam Shaw) are planning to flesh out that angle. It would be nice to see a nod to the real-life women who worked on the Manhattan Project.
Manhattan’s Los Alamos is one of mute reds, blues and browns. It is an all-American aesthetic, but dusty and marked by a certain dirtiness both in the atmosphere and in the moods of its inhabitants. Mid-century cars are prominent set pieces, majestic against the desert sky.
With music from the Icelandic-American ambient duo Jonsí & Alex, Manhattan’s anxiety and ominousness are evident. Rhythmic clicks and whirrs underscore the tense theorizing and diatribes against the U.S. government. Time is a driving theme; all characters seem to be in a race against it. How many people died in Poland today? How many weeks until “the gadget” is done? How long are we stuck in this secret hell? What time is dinner? Tic toc.
This is only WGN’s second original series, following Salem, the under-the-radar series about the 17th century witch trials in Massachusetts. Salem just completed its first season and was renewed for a second, but both critic and fan responses have been lukewarm. Manhattan, on the other hand, with its period aesthetic and timely storyline (not to mention those vast southwest skylines that made Breaking Bad so picturesque) may well elevate the cable underdog to AMC status. Like so many things, only time will tell.
Manhattan airs on WGN Sunday nights at 10:00 pm.
Sarah Hope is a graduate student at Syracuse University, where she focuses on television, entertainment history and classical music. Find her on Twitter @sarahmusing.