Tuned In: WGN America retells the story of the Manhattan Project

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – It’s difficult to imagine that the more sophisticated, adult drama “Manhattan” (9 p.m. Sunday, WGN America) comes from the same network that just a few months ago debuted the silly, supernatural drama “Salem.”

Perhaps WGN America, new to original scripted series, is pursuing a let’s-throw-anything-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks programming strategy because these two series could not be more different.

Both shows are rooted in history, but “Salem” posits an alternate history where witches were real and masterfully manipulated events in 17th-century Massachusetts.

Newcomer “Manhattan” takes the real history of the Manhattan Project and retells the story of the creation of the first atomic bomb with fictional characters.

“Manhattan” clearly seems to be positioned as a serious cable show, and although it lacks the psychological depth of “Mad Men” or the edgy vibe of “Breaking Bad,” this new drama is easily one of the best new summer series.

John Benjamin Hickey, who played Laura Linney’s brother on “The Big C,” stars in “Manhattan” as fictional Frank Winter, a science researcher on one of several teams trying to develop an atomic weapon under the direction of real-life figure Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London) in a no-name town in New Mexico (Los Alamos).

Winter’s team is not the team preferred by Oppenheimer and the U.S. Army; they are the underdogs. But Winter doggedly pursues any approach that will shave time off the development of a weapon because he sees every passing hour reflected in an increased number of dead American service members. He’s so worried about ending the war that he even considers sacrificing a rule-breaking colleague in the pilot.

Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) and wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) are new to “the Hill,” and Charlie, although an admirer of Winter’s work, is recruited by the rival team. Charlie is haunted by his own worries: Once America develops this weapon, what’s to stop another, less enlightened country from making a bomb of its own?

One researcher on the same team brags, “We have the highest combined IQ of any town in America and more Jews than Babylon. You’ll be wined and dined by the U.S. Army until Hitler and the Japs say uncle.”

The pilot episode, written by series creator Sam Shaw (“Masters of Sex”) and directed by Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”), offers some beautiful desert vistas and crane shots out of a Steven Spielberg film. It’s easily one of the most beautiful hours of television to come along this year. (As is often the case, a subsequent episode is less cinematic.)

The first hour is a little slow, somewhat pacey at times — it clocks in at 56 minutes, not the usual 42 minutes, and will run one hour and 10 minutes with commercials — but it does a fine job of setting up the story and introducing the characters. “Manhattan” is not just about the scientists, but also their wives.

Winter’s wife, Liza (Olivia Williams, “Dollhouse,” who can’t seem to shake her British accent), is the most anarchic wife, doing anything to ease her boredom. She has a doctorate but has put her career on hold for her husband. She takes newcomer Abby under her wing in episode two and shows her one way to get some kitchen equipment that involves trading tampons for peyote for a hot plate.

In two episodes made available for review, the homefront stories of the wives actually come off better than many of the lab scenes because the wives are better drawn. Winter’s lab is full of scientists, but viewers barely learn their names, let alone personalities, in these early episodes.

But Winter is a compelling character and the stakes of his work are high, which gives “Manhattan” a leg up on another summer workplace drama, AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” which began with a strong premiere and immediately grew dull with no interesting places for its stories to go.

But will viewers who tuned in to “Salem” in large enough numbers for that series to get a second-season renewal be likely to come to the more historically plausible, reality-rooted “Manhattan”? If they don’t, WGN America may have an altogether different kind of bomb on its hands.

Producers on ‘Manhattan’

After a “Manhattan” press conference earlier this month, Mr. Schlamme said WGN America executives acknowledged there may not be a lot of crossover between the “Salem” audience and the “Manhattan” audience.

“What they wanted was a great show,” he said. “They’ve been unbelievably supportive. They said, ‘If we can get a quality television show, that is what we want to do.’ And honestly, they’ve never winked. It’s never been, ‘Well, we said that, but what we really mean is the other.’ ”

“Manhattan” was filmed at an old New Mexico U.S. Army hospital that was days away from being torn down. The production came in and took over 12 acres of buildings that were reconfigured for the show. Mr. Schlamme said 85-90 percent of the series is shot on that location and much of it is shot outdoors.

“We created a world,” he said. “And part of that hope was to create a world that [the actors] could walk into that didn’t feel like a soundstage. It’s what it would have felt like for the [real-life] men and women who were transported from their homes on the East Coast, on the West Coast, and just plopped into the desert.”

 Ken Burns on ‘The Roosevelts’

PBS mainstay Ken Burns returns with his latest massive production, the 14-hour “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” airing two hours a night for seven nights the week of Sept. 14.

Mr. Burns said the Roosevelts — President Theodore Roosevelt, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and FDR’s wife, Eleanor — have played a part in many of his past films, including “The Civil War,” “The National Parks” and “Prohibition,” so he was eager to explore their roles in American history in a film of their own.

On Teddy Roosevelt, the film looks at his prolific letter writing. Mr. Burns said he penned hundreds of thousands of letters.

“He would not stop talking,” says commentator David McCullough, a Pittsburgh native and historian, in the film. “He was a one-man gas bag, but it was so interesting most people wouldn’t mind it.”

Mr. Burns said a sense of obligation to the betterment of America ran through the family, philanthropists who devoted both money and time toward the greater good.

“It wasn’t checkbook, it was actual, dedicated public service,” Mr. Burns said.

And despite their wealth, Americans of all social classes felt a kinship with them.

“They sense that those people somehow miraculously understood them, and exactly how that happened I think is one of the great mysteries,” said “Roosevelts” writer Geoffrey C. Ward. “But a man in the ’36 election said that FDR was the only president who ever understood that his boss was a son of a bitch. And that people really felt that way. And exactly how they did it is an alchemy.”

Channel surfing

The CW has pulled its Monday night summer comedies “Backpackers” and “Seed” after just two weeks, effectively canceling them. “America’s Next Top Model” will debut its 21st cycle at 9 p.m. Aug. 18, airing in a Monday time slot for six weeks before moving to 9 p.m. Friday on Oct. 3. … Comcast customers with X1 cable boxes can test-drive new features in the Comcast Labs section within the settings, including a lock the remote feature, a shuffle feature and a jump-to-the-next-episode feature for binge watchers.

Tuned In online

Today’s TV Q&A column responds to questions about “Rizzoli & Isles,” “The Real Housewives” and short-order series. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on press tour parties, “Sons of Anarchy,” “Fargo” and “Downton Abbey.” Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about new fall series on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW. Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.

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