Scott D. Pierce: ‘Manhattan’ feels like sci-fi, but it’s history

First Published      Last Updated Jul 24 2014 04:36 pm

Imagine a TV series about a group of people sequestered in the middle of nowhere, secretly racing to build the ultimate weapon to end a war that has engulfed their planet.

As millions are dying across their world, they're desperate to perfect this weapon before the powers of evil do.

Sounds like science fiction, but it's science fact. It's "Manhattan," a new drama series about the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bombs that ended World War II.

"We sometimes talk about this story as a true life science-fiction story," said Sam Shaw, the creator/writer/executive producer of "Manhattan" (Sunday, 7 p.m. WGN; 8 p.m. Ch. 13). "When you really think about it, it's like it could be an [Isaac] Asimov novel or something. The greatest minds in the world … uprooted and moved to this secret city — a kind of faux suburban bubble on top of a dead volcano in the middle of nowhere to build a device that will either save the world or end it."

"Manhattan" is a continuing drama — a rather high-class soap opera, essentially — set against the backdrop of the Manhattan Project.

"Manhattan" is based on that true story, but it's largely fictionalized. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London) is a historical figure; the others are inventions.

"There may be others who wend their way through the story over the course of the season," said Shaw, who added that his team makes "painstaking efforts to be as faithful to history as we possible can."

The model for the show, he said, is E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime," which mixed historical and fictional characters.

"Manhattan" centers on Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey, a genius who leads a group of scientists in the Manhattan Project. He's obsessed with his work, which doesn't make his wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), particularly happy.

"You know, I love him," Hickey said. "I love this guy so much."

He said the character makes him reflect on his father and uncle, who both served in World War II.

"We live in such a cynical and bitter time now politically — to think how bitter and cynical and essentially just physically exhausted these guys must have been," he said. "And still the idea that the Germans and Hitler might get us, and just imagine what that must be like to get up every morning and know how united your country is in one common pursuit."

Yes, a "moral quandary" hangs over "Manhattan.""It's horrible because it's war," Hickey said, "but it's such a great cause, you know, to protect the American way of life."

It's a great backdrop for a series. Sunday's premiere is a bit talky and it has to establish a lot of characters and a lot of plot, but the series has potential. And it has a 13-episode first season to get things right.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.