It's a show bringing the science to the fiction, and vice versa -- so viewers might want to minimize their history bias.
"Manhattan" is the new '40s-set drama that zooms in on the scientists (and their families) behind the Manhattan Project, one of history's largest top-secret projects, led by the U.S. to build the world's first atomic bomb during World War II. The series marks another effort in WGN America's push into the original programming space.
Executive producers Sam Shaw ("Masters of Sex") and Thomas Schlamme ("The West Wing," "Pan Am"), both of whom have experience in period dramas, stressed Wednesday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour that while science may be built on facts, "Manhattan" is built on the emotional truth from those facts.
"We sometimes talk about this story as a true-life science-fiction story," said Shaw, who created the series and serves as its writer. "When you really think about it, it's the greatest minds of the world living in a secret city to build a device that will save the world or end it."
The 13-episode first season premieres July 27 and follows the scientists who had to pack up their lives and move, with their families, to a remote desert in the west that would later become Los Alamos. Its focus is on highlighting what life was like for the thousands who lived in the town.
"From the outset, we were set on that it would not be a finite story about the end of World War II," Shaw said. "It's the story about the birth of an era."
As such, many of the characters in the world are fictional. But key figures of the era and project will filter through. Scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who served as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, was written into the first episode -- and the character will return as the season progresses.
And it's a season that'll progress at a reasonable pace, Shaw and Schlamme said. That's a luxury of WGN America (owned, like The Times, by Tribune Co.) ordering the drama straight to series without a pilot.
"There's a thing that usually happens in the pilot process," Shaw said. "You feel enormous pressure to jam an Episode 6 cliffhanger into Act 2. You're forcing an emotional experience onto a viewer as viewers are just getting their bearing. We felt the freedom to slow down storytelling."
Schlamme added: "We approached it like were doing a 13-hour movie. And we hope to make it a longer movie."