Fueled by mystery and suspense, Manhattan is set in the 1940s in a town whose very existence is classified. Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey, The Big C) and his team of brilliant but flawed scientists have been recruited to work on a project even they could know nothing about until their arrival. Once inside “The Hill,” a middle-class bubble on a dusty foothill in the New Mexico desert, they begin to sense that this is no ordinary assignment. In fact, they are living in a town with the world’s highest concentration of geniuses, yet it can’t be found on any map. The series depicts the wonder, danger and deceit that shadowed the first “nuclear” families.
It certainly can’t be said that the set for WGN America’s new series Manhattan (premiering Sunday, July 27, at 9pm ET) does not look the part.
Having had a chance to visit the Santa Fe, N.M., location in late June, it was everything you would expect from a dramatic retelling of the group of scientists gathered in the remote desert town of Los Alamos back in the 1940s to develop the world’s first atomic bomb (the “Manhattan” of the title comes from the top-secret operation’s code name, “the Manhattan Project”).
Behind the World War II-era facades, plenty of 21st-century interviews and photo shoots are taking place with the actors and creative team of the series. While none of the characters in the series are officially based on actual people, many of the actors we spoke with found it helpful to research the people of that time. Katja Herbers, who plays Helen Prins, one of the few female scientists at Los Alamos, did just that.
“There’s this great Internet site of Los Alamos where you can hear testimonies of female scientists,” Herbers says, “and also the wives who lived here. … I also thought about strong women, and that’s all an inspiration. Sometimes it’s weird to think for me, being a young woman … sometimes you take for granted how easy it is to be a woman now [compared with then].”
But even though women pitched in greatly during wartime, many of them were still expected to suppress some of their talent and intelligence, even at Los Alamos. This includes Liza Winter, played by Olivia Williams. Although Liza is just as brilliant as her husband, lead scientist Frank (John Benjamin Hickey), Williams tells us, “It’s incredibly frustrating for my character. She’s equally as qualified as her husband, and yet she has very selflessly agreed to come here and suppress all her inquiring instincts and to abide by the military rule of secrecy. And she beats up against it like an animal against a cage every day, and she’s not coping well.”
As you can probably tell so far, Manhattan has a big focus on not just the technical and historical details of the goings-on at Los Alamos, but also strong interpersonal connections between the characters. And that’s what helped compel creator/writer Sam Shaw to tell this story.
“The thing that was really fascinating to me was not only how complicated the interpersonal dynamics were in the place,” Shaw says, explaining the research he did, “[but also] it was really a human story, not a big historical story, but a story about families and spouses and kids. I think it’s a great American origin story, with a lot to say about who we’ve become, and how we got here.”
Photo: Credit: WGN America