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Can WGN America’s Stellar ‘Manhattan’ Finally Break Through?

Can WGN America's Stellar 'Manhattan' Finally Break Through?

Jolting and shaking on the rutted dirt road that cuts through Bonanza Creek Ranch, not far from Santa Fe, N.M., the present evaporates as if it were last night’s rain. A thatch of low-slung bungalows appears amid the sagebrush and gnarled cottonwoods, a one-block ghost town of forlorn clotheslines and abandoned cars. Children’s toys lay untouched in the patchy grass; from a small hillock a billboard cautions, “The Enemy is Looking… GUARD YOUR TALK!” “Warning: Radiation,” another reads, and even in the summer sun, already high and hot at 9 a.m., it carries the same foreboding sense of the inevitable that marks WGN America’s stellar “Manhattan.” An intimate history of the atomic age, an origin story for the threat of annihilation itself, the series is a dramatization of events whose outcome we already know, and here in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains the fateful moment is nigh.

Welcome to Trinity.

Created by Sam Shaw (“Masters of Sex”), “Manhattan,” which returns for its second season on October 13, re-imagines the Manhattan Project—the clandestine, U.S.-led Allied operation to develop nuclear weapons during World War II—as a hothouse of clashing agendas, egos, ethics, and ideologies. In the first season, physicist Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) and his hand-picked team race to find a theoretical solution to the problem of “the gadget,” as the bomb is called, buffeted all the while by bureaucratic infighting, strained relationships, and fears of German and Soviet espionage. At the heart of the series is this deft balance between its threads of dramatic invention and its investment in scientific and historical accuracy.

“This isn’t a work of speculative fiction,” Shaw says. “The Nazis are not going to drop the bomb on New York City. We know that certain immutable historical facts are going to be part of the time frame of the story. The challenge for us… is figuring out how to make those events personal and human-sized.”

As several cast members note, the result is a genre hybrid—part war story, part domestic melodrama, part spy thriller—that appeals to multiple sensibilities.

“It brings together sci-fi and sci-fact,” says Olivia Williams, who plays Frank’s wife, Liza, a highly respected botanist dissatisfied with life on “the Hill,” the residents’ term for Los Alamos National Laboratory. “This happened, and if you made it up, nobody would accept it. You’ve got a bit of Big Brother, you’ve got a really diverse group of people from all over the world thrown onto the top of a mesa, and you put a chain-link fence around them and see what happens. For me, it kind of spans all the good and evil of the human character, and in this new, great form, the long-form TV show, where you can really explore each character’s ethical and emotional motivations while telling a huge, huge story.”

For these reasons, the first season of “Manhattan” was, in the main, a critical success, and the second, which opens with a flash-forward to July 16, 1945—21 days before Hiroshima—scarcely flags. As Frank’s young rival, Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), wrangles hundreds on the Hill to transform a theoretical model into a functioning weapon, he tangles with his wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), his mistress, physicist Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), and project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer (the magnetic Daniel London)—culminating in the fourth episode, “Overlord,” an exemplar of subtle force capped by a tense telephone conversation framed in increasingly claustrophobic close-up. It is, cast member Harry Lloyd (“Game of Thrones”) suggests, worthy of consideration alongside the era’s finest dramas.

“Like any good American TV… it’s to do with this fantastic ensemble,” says Lloyd, who plays womanizing British physicist Paul Crosley. “Regardless of the setting, the fascinating moral questions, the details, the visuals of New Mexico—all of that, these are bonus elements to this wonderful cast and the writing… We’ve got more than enough fuel. We could make 20 episodes this season. It’s just so rich.”

Still, WGN America’s second scripted series, after the supernatural “Salem,” must confront the challenges of what FX Networks’ John Landgraf, at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, famously described as “peak TV in America.” As “Mad Men” was for AMC in 2007, “Manhattan” is WGN America’s canary in the prestigious original programming coal mine, only now the network is but one of many striving to carve off a tiny slice of the audience. Joining the broadcast networks, basic cable, and premium channels like HBO and Showtime, Netflix and Amazon have created a veritable boomlet of award-winning series. Hulu chases comedy fans with “Difficult People,” “The Mindy Project,” and Jason Reitman’s new “Casual.” Ever more ambitious web series proliferate on YouTube and Vimeo; familiar names (Cinemax, PlayStation, Starz) experiment with unfamiliar content (“The Knick,” “Powers,” “Outlander”); and outlets you’ve never heard of (Pivot, Crackle) offer series you absolutely must see (“Please Like Me”).

The result is a TV ecosystem shadowed by Landgraf’s prediction of an imminent contraction, and it’s possible that lavishly detailed, little-seen programs like “Manhattan”—which averaged 420,000 viewers per episode during its freshman run, and an anemic 0.08 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic—will be culled from the herd of 400-plus original series first. For the makers of television, however, the key may be to ignore the noise altogether.

“I will tell you this: if you have the answer to that, you become the czar of entertainment,” says “Manhattan” executive producer Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”) when I ask him how a series cuts through the clutter. “I don’t think there is a formula. I think the only thing you can do is make the best television you can, and you hope that your partners market it the right way. The good news is how much great television there is out there now. The bad news is how much great television there is out there now.”

Of course, the cancellation of series with critical backing is as old as the medium itself—it’s just that we’ve become inured in the past decade to seeing such titles, from “Arrested Development” to “Community,” saved or resurrected in the service of the niche, and this status quo, if Landgraf is to be believed, is already on the wane. What may protect “Manhattan” in the age of “peak TV,” then, is exactly what allowed “Mad Men” to become the leading edge of the latest “golden age”: with its fastidious narrative and aesthetic construction, along with its talented cast and crew, it’s the series to make WGN America’s name, now and in the VOD long tail.

“I’d tell [viewers] to get to it when you’re finished with your other show,” Zukerman says. “As a TV watcher, if it’s great, I’ll get to it. I think our job is just to get here and make the script work, and I think we’re doing that. The [episodes] are, to my mind, incredible, and I’m very proud of them. I’ve no doubt that people will get to it eventually.”

In the frigid offices that comprise the main nerve center of the Hill—built on a back lot at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design—that craft is on display down to the pages tucked into an old Underwood typewriter, minutes of a debate over the merits of a “government-controlled corporation” versus a government department overseeing the Manhattan Project. Extras in army drab and aviators loiter in the shade outside the main barracks, and the high-ceilinged Los Alamos town hall is draped in patriotic banners and signs describing “pocket billiards” as “HEALTHFUL RECREATION.”

“Everyone at Los Alamos is watching this, and I have such high regard and respect that I really want to make sure that we represent the story correctly,” production designer Ruth Ammon says of the immaculate detail, sitting before an extraordinary mockup of “the gadget” at Bonanza Creek Ranch. “Every single thing is a learning lesson. I have stacks of books that are this thick that I try to get through after 14-hour days.”

With the aid of historical consultant Alex Wellerstein and science consultant David Salzburg, Shaw and company weave the mostly unknown story of life on the Hill into a political drama whose implications continue to play out in the life of the country 70 years on.

“It’s not about 1945, it’s about 2015,” says Christopher Denham, whose character, physicist Jim Meeks, passes intelligence to the Soviets to ensure the United States cannot wield such a powerful weapon with impunity. “It’s about the issues that we’re grappling with today. It’s about government surveillance. It’s about the limits of government power, what the government’s doing behind closed doors, what an active citizenry wants its government to be doing behind closed doors.”

“The modern world was given birth to here, and it was modern in that the relationship we feel we have with the government now because of what happened here existed then,” Hickey concurs. “I think that’s what makes the show so exciting. Anybody who comes to it thinking it’s going to be history—dry, on some level—is surprised by how relevant all the stories are, how modern all the stories are, and what a pressure cooker it was.”

The specter of the Cold War, which in the second season of “Manhattan” gradually supplants the Nazis as the main source of intrigue, is perhaps the foremost assurance for critics and fans that “Manhattan” has legs, even as the financial success or failure of hour-long dramas becomes less and less predictable. In the end, as the “golden age” of the recent past evaporates, to be replaced for a time by “peak TV,” Schlamme is correct that the only guarantee is that there are no guarantees, and that the solution to this dilemma is to continue pushing on the boundaries of the medium—to trust that if you build it, they will come. At minimum, as Shaw notes, the first two seasons of “Manhattan” comprise but the beginning of the story, not the whole of it.

“The show has always been, for me and for Tommy [Schlamme], much more about what happens after the bomb is dropped, more about the superpower that is born in the ashes of those really cataclysmic events, and what the implications are for the characters when they lose the moral clarity of World War II and enter this other postwar period, this atomic age. That’s what we’re really excited to explore, and I hope we get the opportunity to keep doing that for a long time.”

The second season of “Manhattan” premieres Tuesday, Oct. 13 at 9 p.m. on WGN America.

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