WGN America, which plunged into original dramatic programming in April with the historical fantasia "Salem," has returned with a second scripted series, "Manhattan," establishing that it has a thing for one-word titles that are also place names. We'll have to wait for a third series to really declare it a trend.
"Manhattan," as in the Manhattan Project — which produced the first atomic bomb — improves on its predecessor. Notwithstanding the odd improbability, the show, which premieres Sunday, is a solid, involving big-canvas drama that plausibly re-creates a time and place and fills it with some original characters.
Creator Sam Shaw wrote for Showtime's "Masters of Sex," and like that series, "Manhattan" concerns young scientists changing the world in ways we are still reckoning with. But where "Sex" puts historical personages at the center of its story, "Manhattan," leaves them at the margins, giving the writers a freer hand with the drama. J. Robert Oppenheimer (a look-alike Daniel London), who ran the show, does make a brief, semi-gnomic appearance ("Man is made by his beliefs; as he believes, so he is"), but the main characters are nearly all invented people doing invented, if factually informed, things.
Set at Los Alamos, the top-secret, city-sized New Mexico compound where the conceptual heavy lifting was done, the drama wraps around its characters' professional and personal lives, which are fraught in the former case and fraught in the latter. Shaw has taken the fact that two different systems were under development and turned it into a kind of desperate competition.
The script can seem both a little precious and a little obvious at times, dropping references to Pandora's box, the golem, Einstein's definition of insanity and Schrödinger's cat. But all in all, it works.
Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) are eggheads at odds. Then again, Winter is at odds with nearly everyone: the Army, the FBI, other scientists, his botanist wife (Olivia Williams), his disgruntled teenage daughter (Alexia Fast), who complains, "Everything is a secret here. It's Kafkaesque." He is driven, unshaven, unsocial, slightly radioactive and tortured by every new American casualty the lack of a bomb allows.
His own team, a colorful, semi-comical "band of misfits working on an alternate design," is almost a satire on war-movie diversity — Chinese American, British, a couple of nerds in contrasting shapes, a woman, and Daniel Stern in a big, gray, goatish beard as Winter's mentor and colleague. We learn immediately that the group is in danger of being dissolved. Meanwhile, Winter's dreams are full of apocalypse, and his ears ring.
New to the project is Isaacs, arriving with wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) and child. "The youngest buck who ever won the Forbes Prize," he is so smart that he only has to be shown a page of numbers to understand that it's all about the A-bomb.
"This is Shangri-La," Isaacs is told by way of introduction to Los Alamos. "We've got the highest combined IQ of any town in America and more Jews than Babylon." (He is one of them.) And yet he has reservations about what they're calling "the gadget." Looking presciently to the future, he asks, "What happens when Stalin's got one? China? The shah of Iran?"
The inventive process is represented by men at desks with slide rules and at blackboards with chalk and occasional moments when someone gets that "Eureka!" look and announces that everything is about to change — and then hits a wall. ("You can't just waltz into Oppenheimer's office with some chicken scratches on a cocktail napkin!") Of course, they do get that bomb built. (Not a spoiler.)
As much drama, grit, muscle and borderline insanity as is seemly has been injected into the science and bureaucracy. And yet this show (from a network that, like the Los Angeles Times, is owned by Tribune Corp.) is most vibrant when it captures the daily business of life in a strange place — the wives' domestic strategies, for example, or a brilliantly staged party scene in the opening episode, directed by longtime Aaron Sorkin collaborator Thomas Schlamme.
That's what the best historical drama does: It makes the past present and the fantastic familiar.
Where: WGN A
When: 6, 7:10 and 9 p.m. Sunday
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)