A secret city has sprouted in the scrubby hills of northern New Mexico, its inhabitants charged with carrying out a crucial mission.
Men wearing fedoras with the brims pulled low rush past women with hair swept into 1940s "victory roll" styles, their high heels clattering on boardwalks. Army Jeeps zoom past in a cloud of dust. Somewhere a voice cries out: "Action."
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this article said that "Manhattan" premieres on KTLA-TV. The series premieres at 6 p.m. Sunday on WGN America, with an encore run at 8 p.m. on KTLA-TV.
These people aren't toiling away on the construction of a big bomb that will alter civilization forever. Instead, they're part of an effort to find TV's next big hit.
WGN America is hoping to work out the right formula with "Manhattan," a fictionalized retelling of the U.S. race to build the atomic bomb at the top-secret laboratory in Los Alamos during World War II. The so-called Manhattan Project resulted in two bombs of unprecedented destructive power dropped on Japan in August 1945, ending World War II and ushering in the atomic age. The series premieres at 6 p.m. Sunday on WGN America, with an encore run at 8 p.m. on KTLA-TV.
The historical record, already retold in books and documentaries, is filled with fascinating real-life characters, from the brilliant but controversial physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the scientific quest for the nuclear bomb, to the imperious Gen. Leslie Groves, the Army engineer who oversaw the construction of a clandestine worksite that eventually employed thousands but was known simply as the Hill.
"Manhattan," filmed on location on the outskirts of Santa Fe, about a half-hour drive from Los Alamos, is using all that as a backdrop for the story behind the story, however. It's about how webs of secrets and lies, some official and others personal, preyed upon project scientists and their families. The dramatic focus is on two fictional characters, volatile veteran scientist Frank (Broadway veteran John Benjamin Hickey) and whiz kid Charlie (Australian newcomer Ashley Zukerman), along with their inquisitive wives (Olivia Williams and Rachel Brosnahan).
"The families of these physicists who were building a device that we're all kind of living in the shadow of — they had no idea what they were proximate to," said Sam Shaw, an ex-journalist who created the show through a lengthy gestation process that lasted nearly as long as the real Manhattan Project. "The vast majority of them had no idea what the purpose of the town was. … That was just really fascinating to me from a human standpoint."
Executive producer Tommy Schlamme, a director best-known for his work on NBC's "The West Wing," joined the project after realizing the dramatic potential. "I'm a history buff, and I did not know the story," Schlamme said. "I knew the story of Oppenheimer and Groves … but I had no idea about the story of the wives. I knew it was a secret city, but I didn't quite know how it stayed a secret city."
Of course, TV, unlike nuclear physics, is not a science. WGN America (owned by the Tribune Co., which also publishes the Los Angeles Times) is hoping to build on the original programming push it started with "Salem" and become a full-fledged cable network.
But audiences are fickle, and historical dramas generally tend not to tap into the same fierce viewer loyalty reserved for genre series, such as HBO's "Game of Thrones" or AMC's "The Walking Dead." Plus, this is a tale that would seem to have a definitive endpoint, once the bombs level Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But the "Manhattan"-ites say that's precisely the point: It's too soon to gauge the full impact of what unfolded at Los Alamos. The war ended; the bomb goes on.
As Hickey described his character's irony, "I'm building a destroyer of lives in order to save lives."
That echoes Oppenheimer himself. "We knew the world would not be the same," the scientist recalled 20 years after the bombs exploded. He alluded to a line from the Hindu epic "The Bhagavad Gita": "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Infiltrated by spies
"Tell her you love her — that's all she needs to know!" urges a prop poster on the "Manhattan" set. The accompanying illustration shows an American GI of World War II vintage with an attractive young woman on his lap. In reality, the U.S. government had plenty of reason to be concerned: Despite tight security, the real Manhattan Project was infiltrated by Soviet spies.
Secrets are the real radioactivity on display in "Manhattan," a theme that has special resonance amid the surveillance paranoia of the post-Snowden era in America.
But "Manhattan" is still a drama set in a specific historical period, and all that verisimilitude doesn't come cheap. WGN is spending roughly $3 million for each of the 13 episodes in the first season, according to a source close to the production, which is in line with what most major network dramas cost.
Ruth Ammon, a production designer who previously worked on NBC's "Heroes" and Showtime's "Weeds," spent months building the show's stand-in for Los Alamos, at an abandoned military hospital on the outskirts of Santa Fe. At one point 150 workers were toiling on the construction project.
"When we came here you couldn't see any of this," Ammon said during a June visit, gesturing toward the simple barracks-like structures bordering an unpaved courtyard. "It was a very derelict place overgrown with weeds. We replaced over 5,000 panes of glass."
Ammon, a stickler for detail, took special pains with historical authenticity. She bought paint chips for 1940s vehicles on eBay so the prop department could match the shades accurately. She sourced the vintage black Flexo lamps and office gear from the period by bird-dogging purveyors of collectibles.
"Someone asked me what the look of the show was, and I said, 'Camping,'" she said with a smile.
Shaw's original idea was not to write about the 1940s at all. His father, a retired criminal defense attorney, took on pro bono cases for the post-9/11 detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
"As you might expect, I had a thousand questions about what that experience entailed for him," said Shaw, who previously worked on Showtime's "Masters of Sex," about pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson. "He could answer basically none of them" because of security concerns.
Intrigued, Shaw began researching a contemporary project that would deal with themes raised by terrorism and national security. But he found it difficult to write about that subject without more historical distance.
"Along the way, I did a lot of reading and research about the security state and the military industrial complex in America," he said. "What I began to discover was that all of those roads lead back to the New Mexico desert. The story of the birth of the bomb was sort of the origin story of a lot of the really thorny political questions that we're trying to figure out now."
But he soon decided that the best way to tell the story was through invented characters rather than real-life scientists, such as Richard Feynman or Robert Christy, who cast a long shadow at Los Alamos and long afterward. Only a few historical figures appear, fleetingly; actor Daniel London plays Oppenheimer as a slightly ominous, god-like figure. But such moments are rare.
"There will never be a fictional character who will be more interesting than Richard Feynman," Shaw said.
Instead, he and Schlamme cite the example of the movie "Ragtime," based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, which imagines fictional characters whose lives are interwoven in real events from the early 1900s.
"What our hope was, was that we capture something of the emotional truth of the time without feeling like we are forensic accountants who are making sure that [the facts] are exact," Shaw said.
Always room for great shows
"There's always room for another great show," said Matt Cherniss, the president and general manager of WGN America.
Cherniss — a former FX executive hired last year to help lead Tribune's return to scripted TV production — believes that "Manhattan" is the kind of high-quality production that will win over passionate fans and drive the growth of WGN, which is in 72 million homes. Tribune's goal is to take it into upward of 90 million.
"We are looking for shows that transport the audience to worlds that they've never been to before," he said. "Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project qualify as that."
Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media, likes the show as well as the network's overall direction. Among other projects in development are "The Ten Commandments," an unusual take on the Bible with 10 directors each offering an interpretation of one of the Old Testament strictures. The series will be co-produced by The Weinstein Company.
"WGN America is on the right track; they are airing intelligent serialized dramas that could easily appear on more established cable networks like AMC and HBO," he said. "Putting on original series can give you a ratings lift that an acquired series can't do."
Shaw, for his part, hopes that viewers will grow familiar with the characters and see the echoes between the scientists' lives and our own.
"One thing that is really fascinating to me is that a number of the physicists who were there [at Los Alamos] really believed that what they were doing was curing the world of war forever," he said. "That they would build a weapon; it would never be used, and the mere existence of which would make it totally impossible for countries to go to war" because it would mean mutually assured destruction.
"So we would find other methods of resolving our conflicts," he added. "It seems so romantic and utopian now, but there is something hugely poignant about that."
Twitter: @scottcollinsLATCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times