TV Picks: 'Manhattan' on WGN, 'Black Jesus' on Adult Swim

TV Picks: 'Manhattan' on WGN, 'Black Jesus' on Adult Swim
Nuclear physicist Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) finds himself in extraordinary rendition in the second season of WGN America’s period drama "Manhattan." (Greg Peters / WGN America)

"Manhattan" (WGN America, Tuesdays). This many-threaded, highly fictionalized, though (more or less) socially accurate and meticulously appointed story of the building of the atomic bomb begins its second season. Set mostly in the hilltop secret city of Los Alamos, N.M., where scientists and soldiers gathered to win World War II and incidentally help to create the Cold War, it's also a kind of desert-island yarn in which physically isolated characters scramble to finish the job that will make their jobs redundant and get them back to the world. The new year starts with a leap forward in time to "21 days before Hiroshima," as a big metal egg is lifted into a scaffolding and rain beats down all around, then leaps back 15 months into the main action, with Frank Sinatra on the soundtrack singing, "This is the beginning of the end." (There will be more such leaping.) Given that the end of these labors is a well-known matter of history -- I would like to say universally known, but you just can't tell anymore -- the ample suspense and tension and dramatic interest lie mainly in the complicated personal and professional lives of its invented main characters, whose fate is up for grabs. (The nonfictional characters, including project honcho Robert J. Oppenheimer, played by Daniel London, have the shadow of their real-world originals to contend with; exaggeration for effect can sometimes stretch them a little thin. There are times you will want to pause the action and open up an encyclopedia.)

Their days and nights are busy with matters of competition and cooperation, loyalty and betrayal, personal ambition and patriotic duty; there are spies in the house and spies in the house of love. This is a dynamic Big Drama, and the main characters have more than just equations to resolve or inventory to manage. The new year sees appearances by Neve Campbell as Mrs. Oppenheimer, Griffin Dunne as a nosy reporter, Mamie Gummer as a woman in uniform and William Petersen as a new commanding officer with a tendency to get scriptural. They join a big and talented cast that includes John Benjamin Hickey as a physicist whose reckless determination is matched (and mitigated) only by his genius; Olivia Williams as his botanist wife, chafing under the rules of the hill; Ashley Zukerman as an ambitious, somewhat immature scientist, rising in the project hierarchy; Rachel Brosnahan as his frustrated wife (this place is not easy on women); and Richard Schiff, a fearsome and implacable government agent whose outlines are made less blank this season, and whose work is meant to remind us, I think, of America in the Age of the Patriot Act. (There are happily, a few characters who are not involved in any sort of intrigue at all; they let you relax a little.) Sprawling and satisfying.

"Black Jesus" (Adult Swim, Fridays). The second season for this semi-biblical comedy of South Central L.A. finds Jesus (Gerald "Slink" Johnson) emerging from a six-month stay in the mental health system, with a message from "Pops," that is God the Father: Go legit. The series, from Aaron McGruder ("The Boondocks") and Mike Clattenburg ("Trailer Park Boys"), imagines the risen Christ as a semi-homeless, dope-smoking citizen of Compton, fitfully supported by a crew of not-quite apostles and bedeviled by unbelievers. Some -- many -- will undoubtedly find it blasphemous, from the title on up; but it's quite spiritual in its way, encouraging good works and right action and coming correct, as Jesus chides those who are "trying to run capers instead of getting serious about life" and threatens to leave his followers for Inglewood, "where people appreciate you more." By making the grand and glorious contemporary and colloquial, the comedy dignifies the subject, rather than demeaning it; this is known as the "Drunk History" paradox. There is also an amiable, scrappy "Our Gang"/"Bowery Boys"/"Workaholics" element to the series, to ride that dynamic down through decades. If it's not entirely clear that this Jesus isn't just a delusional human, it's not entirely clear that he isn't; but the show works best when we take him at his word -- not as pathology, but parable -- and Johnson, at once sweet and imposing, makes him/Him complicated enough to support alternate readings. One of television's loveliest comedies, all told, and no kidding.

Robert Lloyd reports to Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd