CATCH AN ENCORE PRESENTATION OF THE “MANHATTAN” PREMIERE IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING WHNT NEWS 19 SUNDAY EVENING AT 10:00 P.M.
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – In a market like Huntsville — the ‘Rocket City’ itself, home to Redstone Arsenal and the birth place of the space program — military defense and aerospace technology inherently run through our collective veins. A series like “Manhattan” may certainly have a viewership advantage in a place with 20,000 plus engineering degree-holders where your neighbor could easily be an actual rocket scientist.
But my experience with the “Manhattan” cast and crew proved the show’s explosive premise can resonate with anyone — no matter your age, educational background or interest level in, well — atomic warfare, for instance.
To understand the premise of WGN America‘s new original series “Manhattan” one must first disregard the ostensible title misnomer. At the onset you may be thinking modern-day New York City; wrong. The series deals with a very special group of WWII era Americans with a daunting mission — but not where you may expect.
As the start of second World War conflicts coincided with the 1939 film adaptation release of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” Judy Garland’s famed words, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more,” were already on their way to becoming a staple of quotable American lexicon. While the characters of “Manhattan,” given their situations, would certainly echo Dorothy Gale’s munchkin-struck sentiment — we’re not talking the ‘Sunflower State,’ ‘The Big Apple,’ ‘The Rocket City,’ ‘Oz’ or even the front lines of war abroad.
We’re talking a place in the New Mexico desert that for all intents and purposes doesn’t even exist – as long as, of course, everyone keeps their mouths shut.
Welcome to nowhere.
WGN’s second original series “Manhattan” is a one-hour drama set against the backdrop of the greatest race against time in the history of science — the mission to build the world’s first atomic bomb in Los Alamos — and follows brilliant but clandestine scientists and their families as they attempt to co-exist in a world where secrets and lies infiltrate every aspect of their lives.
Fueled by mystery and suspense, “Manhattan” is set in the 1940s in a town whose very existence is classified. Frank Winter and his team have been recruited to work on a project even they could know nothing about until their arrival. Once inside “The Hill,” a middle-class bubble on a dusty foothill in the New Mexico desert, they begin to sense that this is no ordinary assignment.
Los Alamos: small town — big secrets.
In fact, Los Alamos residents are living in a town with the world’s highest concentration of geniuses, yet it can’t be found on any map.
The dusty, sprawling “Manhattan” set is nestled on the site of the former WWII military hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico — how fitting. The Bruns Hopsital site was discovered by director and executive producer Thomas Schlamme and a New Mexico locations manager. Half the site is owned by the city and the other half was relinquished by The Santa Fe College of Art & Design specifically for show production. Earlier this year crews began transforming the forgotten Bruns buildings into 1943 Los Alamos.
History is the baseline here but we’re talking about a work of fiction, of course. From international intrigue to domestic drama – creator and writer Sam Shaw (“Masters of Sex”) says he felt early on the story of the Manhattan Project would make television gold.
“I knew something of the history of the development of the bomb – not with a lot of specificity or detail,” Shaw admits.
“I began to read and research which is something I love to do as a writer. It may actually just be a great procrastination tool because it’s less scary than facing a blank page but I love immersing myself in the details of what it felt like to be in a time and a place. What was most exciting to me was not the science or the historical pressures – it was just the daily realities of life for the people who were in this place; it just was incredibly fascinating to me,” explains Shaw.
Shaw says the series is incredibly generous in terms of the way it deals with history. While the sense of conflict and pressure and moral dilemma the people of Los Alamos are facing is richly woven within the tapestry of the show, “Manhattan” is a work of fiction centered around fictional charters.
“We have a sense of the history as a kind of scaffold or backdrop for storytelling,” Shaw explains, “But really for us it’s sort of a process of following the emotional lives of a handful of people in this very peculiar place.”
Christopher Denham (“Argo,” “Shutter Island”) who portrays scientist Jim Meeks explains the interpersonal dynamics of the characters in Los Alamos allow for plenty of trajectory, ambiguity and role arcs as the series progresses.
“I think that’s a testament to Sam’s writing,” Denham lauds. “As we’re getting more and more episodes no one is quite who they say they are in this show. You know, the show is really about secrets and the lies we even tell to ourselves. And you have, obviously, this huge framework of physics but inside of that you have these characters that hopefully you’re rooting for.”
Stern explains character development, as the series progresses and these individuals become more and more mired in their unprecedented circumstances, will have the audience choosing sides as characters’ true colors are revealed. Forget Hitler or the Japanese enemy, Stern says — proverbial lines in the sand will be drawn within the very confines of the barbed wire surrounding Los Alamos and its conflicted inhabitants.
“We don’t have as yet in the writing an arch-enemy who you know is the bad guy and that’s the bad guy and the whole show is designed that he’s doing evil things and we’re countering it. It doesn’t quite have that, the ambiguity is that I do an evil thing that’s morally ambiguous — he does that too,” Stern points to co-star Denham. “And does that make us bad? And so I’m curious to see if we end up personifying a ‘bad guy’ in that way or whether it stays in this realm in keeping the Hitler and sort of iconic bad guy at a distance. I think that’s a great question and — I’m gonna keep watching to find out,” smirks Stern.
The culture of secrecy throughout the series is pervasive even within the closest of relationships.
Imagine if you were plucked from your hometown and the people you love and know the most, dropped on a mesa in New Mexico on a top-secret mission — the most paramount, to not speak a word of it to anyone — anyone.
Ashley Zukerman (“Rush”) as Charlie Isaacs and Rachel Brosnahan (“House of Cards”) as Abby Isaacs make up just one of the married couples in Los Alamos whose relationship is tested by the classified nature of the mission at hand.
Charlie becomes as adept in deception as he is in advanced mathematical equations.
“I think that’s exactly the tragedy of Charlie and Abby,” says Zuckerman. “That, how could a couple succeed in this environment? A couple who are both strong-headed and as equal as each other — how could this work when I find out I’m working on the most horrific thing that human beings have ever invented and I can’t come home and tell my wife about it?”
“And I know that I’m begin kept in the dark,” Brosnahan adds.
“You can’t tell the secret and so things get further and further apart and as we start leading more individual lives we start changing without each other in a way,” explains Brosnahan. “And how can you come back together and understand one another when you’ve been changing independently?”
In the first 2 episodes we see a strained, aggressive sort of patriotism apparent in Frank Winter. But over the course of the series, will patriotism prevail or will it morph into cynicism — into apathy?
“Frank’s sense of patriotism — I think he has a terribly impolitic way of showing his patriotism,” Hickey says of his character. “He’s willing to push a lot of people out of his way to get what he wants. But I think his patriotism is very, very complicated; I think it’s based on things we learn about him and his relationship to war and the front lines of battle that fuel him in very extreme ways.”
Frank’s wife Liza, played by Olivia Williams (“Rushmore,” “The Ghost Writer”) is a scientist in her own right — a botanist who has put her own career on hold to move to the desert with her husband and their rebellious 17-year-old daughter, Callie — and in the process begins to uncover unsettling changes in their environment.
Liza is ‘the woman with a Ph.D.’ — a near anomaly in a 1940s ‘man’s world.’
At the onset, the female viewer may not find bombs or nuclear war as appealing as what some may deem the stereotypical interests of the female demographic. But Liza’s character is just one of the family dynamic facets that demonstrate the show has something to offer for everyone.
“I think her first position is that there are now actually now 50/50 women studying science in university and this is the show for people who love science like other people like song and dance and drama,” Williams starts. “I think this is for the person with the inquiring mind. You don’t have to be scientist to be the kind of person — she’s almost a sort of Erin Brockovich, it’s that ‘this thing is happening; why is it happening?’ And the dilemma at this time in this extraordinary period in history is, ‘what’s more important, the security of the country or the preservation of and the seeking after truth?’ — and we’re in that position now,” Williams points out.
Topical as it is tragic, you don’t have to be a nuclear physicist or even a history buff to get hooked by “Manhattan.”
“People start to think, ‘wait a second, is that a civics lesson — do we have to eat our vegetables?’,” director Thomas Schlamme jokes of typical period pieces. “You don’t have to eat your vegetables — this is a full-course meal, and that’s the great thing. The backdrop is this history of making the atomic bomb but the show is unbelievably entertaining and exciting.”
“I think it will appeal to a wide audience,” says Michael Chernus (“The Big C,” “Orange Is The New Black”) who plays Louis ‘Fritz’ Fedowitz. “Especially if you don’t know anything about the specific topic — it could really pull you in.”
“Well, can I just say, as a young person coming onto the show,” chimed Alexia Fast (“Jack Reacher”) who plays teenager Callie Winter on the series, “I barely knew anything about this event and I’ve learned so much and I never knew how fascinating it was and how important and relevant it is to me as a person today. Yeah, I came from that point of view so — I get it.”
Harry Lloyd (“Game of Thrones”) as Paul Crosley and Katja Herbers (“De Storm”) as Helen Prins say in addition to “Manhattan” serving as a learning experience factually, it’s also been a great opportunity to grow in their craft.
“I think every job you grow to a certain extent,” Lloyd admits. “You’re taking things on; for a project of this high quality you attract a lot of high quality people — there are actors that I just like spending time with to soak it up.”
He says part of the roller coaster with this project — unlike others where an actor may know in full the totality of their character’s impact on the story — is learning week by week as scripts come in the evolving nuances of each player in the series.
“I don’t know Paul Crosley’s over-arching arc; I don’t know what’s going to happen to him, I don’t even know the things that will be revealed about his past. So, you turn up on a bit of a blank canvas and do as much research as you can to make yourself feel safe and then you just ride it.”
The stereotypical social mores of the 1940s are in essence thrown out the window because of the unique nature of time and place in which these character find themselves. The individual portrayals feel surprisingly natural, real, relatable and decidedly ‘non-soapy.’
“That’s definitely a goal,” says Herbers. “The more real it is I think the better, always — and good acting is when you don’t really see that it’s acted.”
Drama, secrecy, deception — all exciting, of course. But what about those looking for a little war-era sex appeal?
They didn’t call it ‘the baby boom’ for nothing, after all. Following a day full of trying to split atoms and ultimately effect work peace, you can bet scientists could use a little…right-brain stimulation, if you will.
So, is “Manhattan” a sexy show?
“I totally think it’s a sexy show,” grins Chernus. “I think whenever there’s danger and a high-stakes situation — you know in reality, supposedly in Los Alamos there was a lot of sex happening. A lot of babies were born, so yeah.”
“And a big selling point of the show, of what I’ve seen, is secrets — secrets are always sexy,” adds Eddie Shin (“Men of a Certain Age”) who plays Sid Liao.
“It’s like a high pressure cooker situation,” Alexia Fast co-signs. “People are stressed, I mean they’re bound to get themselves into trouble just to find a release.”
Science; secrets; suppression & sex — a little something for everyone.
“Manhattan” takes you to a place where men and women are torn between duty and their moral values, husbands and wives conceal the truth from each other and their families, the military keeps secrets from the scientists they chaperone, and the scientists keep secrets from each other. “Manhattan” depicts the wonder, danger and deceit that shadowed the first “nuclear” families.
The series premiers Sunday July 27 at 9/8 Central time on WGN. Or you can catch the premiere on Sunday night immediately following WHNT News 19 Sunday Evening at 10:00 p.m. Click here for a link to WGN’s website where you can type your zip code into the WGN channel finder and locate WGN on your cable service provider.