The Bomb Squad: 'Manhattan' Is One of Summer 2014's Best Shows

The excellent new drama looks back at the birth of the Atomic Age and the lives of some very mad men

Manhattan
Greg Peters/WGN America
A scene from 'Manhattan': Hickey (left) is building the first nuke.
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New Mexico, the summer of 1943: FDR recruits an elite squad of scientists and sends them to Los Alamos. Their top­secret mission: building a nuclear bomb, or as everybody nervously calls it, the gadget. With World War II raging on and no end in sight, it's a race against time. The Manhattan Project is one of WWII's most famous tales, but Manhattan turns it into stylishly tense drama – a nowhere desert town full of geeks on a mission, driven by fear and paranoia. The best-case scenario? They invent a way to wipe out the human race. But that's only if they get lucky – if not, the Nazis invent it first.

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Manhattan is one of the summer's best offerings – what Masters of Sex does for the sexual revolution, Manhattan does for nuclear incineration. And as with Masters of Sex, we see the human side of these pioneers as they invent the future. These scientists drive themselves to create a horrific new weapon, although they have no real idea what kind of apocalypse might happen when the gadget actually goes off. They can't trust one another, because their entire lives are now hush-hush. One scientist's wife innocently asks, "What is this place called?" The reply: "It ain't."

The one name everybody knows from the Manhattan Project is J. Robert Oppenheimer, played marvelously as a wild-eyed druid by Daniel London. If the others aren't familiar, it's because they don't exist – aside from Oppenheimer, all the characters on Manhattan are fictionalized. That means plenty of real-life legends go unseen, from Seth Neddermeyer to Edward Teller. Let's hope they're saving the Enrico Fermi cameo for a Very Special Episode – maybe a Christmas party where Fermi and Oppenheimer perform "Puttin' on the Ritz"?

Los Alamos is full of these high-strung geniuses: the suspiciously suave Dr. Akley (David Harbour), the idealistic Dr. Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), his botanist wife, Liza (Olivia Williams). They're academics struggling to adjust to the psychological demands of a secret mission. (The signs around the base warn WEAR YOUR BADGES WHERE THEY CAN BE SEEN.) Over in Nazi Germany, equally elite scientists have been ordered onto the same project – including Walter White's hero Heisenberg, cooking something deadlier than meth. (Although in Heisenberg's case he might have been heroically stalling the project.)

Like most dramas, except more so, Manhattan takes a couple of episodes to get going – there's just too much backstory to get out of the way. But the tension steadily escalates to the point where there's a strange Project Runway feel to the team challenges – you keep waiting for a nuclear physicist to flip a table and yell, "I didn't come here to make friends!"/p>

The most moving moments on Manhattan come from the sight of ordinary, decent people grappling with horrors beyond their imagination, as they start to ask nightmarish questions the world has taken for granted since 1945. "What about the next war?" one scientist asks. "What happens when Stalin's got one? China? The Shah of Iran?" That question takes an emotional toll on all the characters in Manhattan, no matter how cerebral and cold they might be. These people are thinking machines – they're in Los Alamos because their specialty is solving mathematical problems, not dealing with their human feelings. Like Humphrey Bogart says in 1942's Casablanca, the problems of a few little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. And that's what makes the tension so agonizing for the scientists of Manhattan – their whole mission is making this crazy world a lot crazier.

From The Archives Issue 1216: August 28, 2014