This Manhattan article was first published in the Den of Geek NYCC Special Edition Magazine. You can find out about that issue and everything else in it by clicking here.
Welcome to nowhere: a winding dirt road that stretches for miles across the desert terrain, cutting between rolling hills with spotty shrubs that blanket the bumps in the earth like moss on a rock. A planted yellow sign that says “Atom” directs you past The Hill, a popup city where “silence” reads loud on World War II propaganda billboards and secrets are traded like currency.
Most of the houses are as hollow as they appear on television, where the re-imagining of the famed Manhattan Project comes to life on WGN America’s Manhattan. On set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, not far from where the world’s first nuclear bomb was conceived and tested, shooting for season two is coming to a close and the bustling, self-contained city seen on screen is mostly dormant.
Loosely centered on the real-life origin story of the atomic bomb, Manhattan uses history as a jumping off point to construct its own narrative. As rewritten history goes: Frank Winter, a brilliant, yet emotionally detached (fictional) scientist, is leading a team working to build a nuclear weapon that could end World War II. While the race toward nuclear functionality forges on, the series prods the collective psyche of the men and women on The Hill. Brainy co-workers have workplace squabbles, moral and ethical lines are drawn in sand, and marriages and families hang by a thread, all amidst increasing wartime paranoia. It’s Mad Men with an industrial-military complex set in the desert.
Manhattan debuted with a bang for a network still finding its way onto televisions across the country. The series premiered on July 27, 2014, and pulled in 1.8 million viewers across three airings that night, a sizeable audience considering WGN America was only available in about 70 million homes at the time. Viewership never returned to the plateau set by the premiere, but the network is counting on a positive critical reception and the generous boost streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu tend to give cable shows (Manhattan is a Hulu exclusive) to help cultivate a larger audience. To get there, they’ll have to prove that the journey is more important than the Manhattan Project’s outcome.
“There’s the luxury of being a well-kept secret,” says actor John Benjamin Hickey, who stars as Frank Winter. “We’re still in our nascent stages and you want to enjoy that childhood and hope you get to grow into very old people on this show.”
On July 16, 1945, when “The Gadget,” a 19-kiloton plutonium bomb dropped on an 18 by 24 mile tract of land in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin, Spanish for “Journey of the Dead Man.” It sent a blast radius extending far beyond a region, state, and country. The secret government project, now known in history textbooks as the Trinity Test, set the world on a collision course with its nuclear destiny.
As season two sets out to tell the story of the Trinity Test on its 70th anniversary, the scientists who spent the first 13 episodes worried about how to make the bomb now begin to question how it will be used.
“The blinders come off,” Hickey says. “Frank sees how remarkably naïve he’s been about the purpose of this bomb. The nature of building a bomb by definition can’t mean one thing.”
“They’re all about the advancement of science without thinking about what the consequence would be,” adds Katja Hebers, who plays Helen Prins, the lone female scientist attached to the project. “They just want to do the best work they possibly can.”
Creator Sam Shaw wrote the first draft of the Manhattan pilot six years before WGN America agreed to make it the network’s second original series. Roughly a year before getting a green light, he got together with Emmy-winning director Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing) to map out a plan to bring Shaw’s version of the Manhattan Project to the small screen. Then something rare in television happened: WGN America stepped in and offered a complete season order before they shot a pilot.
“Tommy had very specific and really brilliant insights about how to make this show producible and how to tell this story,” Shaw says. “So I’ve been beneficiary of all that experience and wisdom.”
When the script hit Schlamme’s desk, he recognized it not as another World War II piece, which there has been little shortage of in recent years, but a commentary on issues of the era that are still relevant today.
“It’s the origin story of the America that we live in right now,” Schlamme says. “This was the birth of the atomic age. It’s a story that definitely doesn’t have an ending yet.”
Shaw says he went into this process of making the show with “lofty hopes of what six or seven years of storytelling would look like,” but the inescapable fact is someday the bomb will have to drop.
“From the beginning, Tommy had joked that I had an itchy trigger finger and I wanted to drop the bomb and if it were up to me, I’d drop it in episode four,” Shaw recalls.
As the characters begin to deal with the moral hangover of the Trinity Test, Manhattan will play with time in season two. While season one remained linear, Shaw says they’ll approach structure in different ways with episodes that more forward in time, one as much as six months. One episode in particular finds Frank Winter battling issues of moral and mental clarity as he’s physically remove from the rest of the ensemble.
“[The episode] place in this contained world and it’s this psychological thriller between two characters,” Shaw says.
As for how Hickey prepared for demanding episode shot unlike any other thus far?
“Tito’s Vodka,” he says with a smirk.
The veteran actor and Tony Award winner relies on his theatre background when it comes time to rehearse for the show.
“A lot of us come from the theater and that’s when you realize what great gifts the theatre gives you,” Hickey says. “The writing is so good that you make sure you get together with that actor you’re playing opposite, whoever it is that week, and know your stuff. Through form there is freedom. You work your butt off so you can let go and put yourself in those imaginary circumstances.”
Hickey doesn’t have to look far for a rehearsal partner. Actress Olivia Williams, a star of stage and screen in her own right, most notably for The Sixth Sense and Rushmore, stars as Frank’s wife Liza Winter. Giving up her own promising career as a scientist to support her husband’s wartime duty, Liza goes on a mission to find her own sense of purpose among the isolation of Los Alamos.
“In season one, Liza said she would make this sacrifice for her husband and he asks of her again, and again, and again,” Williams says. “It’s that thing where at what point do you say to your partner, ‘no.’”
Disconnect between partners is a constant theme in the first season, partially due to the stress related to the project and the uneasy living situation. The Hill was only meant to house a few hundred people and it ended up expanding into the thousands, turning the home into a case study on how people respond when they’re under a microscope.
“This was ground zero for the way we relate to each other, our society, and our government now,” says actor Ashley Zukerman whose character, Charlie Isaacs, begins the season as the head of the project, stepping in for the displaced Frank Winter. “This place is a construct of the time,” he says. “It helps us drive our story.”