TV review: Intrigue, science, tension fuel 'Manhattan'


Secrecy, lies and the grueling pressure to build the first atomic bomb take their toll in the fascinating new period drama "Manhattan" (8 p.m. July 27, WGN America; 3.5 stars out of 4). 

While the 13-episode series tells the story of the birth of the nuclear age, science doesn't overshadow story-telling. Instead, writer Sam Shaw ("Master of Sex") and director Thomas Schlamme ("West Wing") fuse history with the fictitious stories of the scientists and their families who resettled in dusty New Mexico to work on the top secret Manhattan Project.

Schlamme's presence is felt in the very first scene, in which tactless genius Dr. Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) burns off his frustrations by hitting golf balls into a sandstorm by the light of his car's headlights. It's July 2, 1943—"766 days before Hiroshima" as the show puts it—and Frank is feeling the responsibility of his job as leader of one of the teams competing to create a bomb design that will earn the support of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London), one of the show's few factual characters.

Frank is less motivated by a personal competition with an arrogant rival team leader than he is by the growing list of casualties in World War II. "One hundred American kids have been buried since we walked through that gate," Frank says to a colleague. "By tomorrow morning there will be 100 more. And you want me to slow down?"

He's consumed by the work, and he can't find respite at home with his wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), a brilliant botanist who has put her career on hold to be with Frank on "The Hill"—a town cloaked in such secrecy not even the vice president knows what's really happening there. The classified nature of Frank's work even prevents him from sharing it with Liza, and it's taking a toll on their marriage.

But Frank's a bomb waiting to explode, so to decompress he hits those golf balls or, later in the premiere, confesses all about his work to someone who doesn't understand a word he's saying—his Native American housekeeper. Hickey hits every note of Frank's aloneness in that riveting scene.

Although the viewers' introduction to this world of secrets and paranoia is through young physicist Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) and his wife, Abby (former Highland Park resident Rachel Brosnahan)—new arrivals who have no clue what Charlie has signed on for—I was immediately hooked by Frank and Liza. Hickey and Williams deliver fantastic, layered performances and lead an excellent cast that also includes Daniel Stern, Harry Lloyd, former Evanston resident Mark Moses, Katja Herbers, Alexia Fast, Christopher Denham, Michael Chernus and Eddie Shin.   
"Manhattan" is a leap forward from WGN America's first original series, the entertainingly odd genre show "Salem." It shows the network (owned, like RedEye, by Tribune Co.) is serious about its original programming.

Shaw and Schlamme present a spot-on depiction of the tension of the early arms race between the U.S. and Germany, but also get quite intimate with their examination of the equally tense times faced by the scientists and their "nuclear" families. History tells us what the Manhattan Project unleashed on the world, but "Manhattan" conjures a compelling (fictional) journey for the men and women who made it happen.

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