Manhattan: Season One (Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) isn’t about the city. It’s about the project. Set on the Los Alamos, New Mexico, military base in the early 1940s, it is about the development of the atomic bomb and the uneasy society in this gated community guarded by MPs who, like everyone else not directly involved with the project, don’t actually know what the brain trust of physicists and engineers are working on.
The real-life Manhattan Project was developed across multiple sites spread around the country (the series even visits one of those sites) but Los Alamos was at the center of it. This is where the device was to be designed and built and Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the program, had two teams working in competition on separate approaches. That’s where we come into the story with young physics wunderkind Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), who arrives with his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) to a high-security base that is not on any map (it’s simply identified as PO Box 1663) feels like a cross between a cheaply-built gated community and an internment camp. Charlie is assigned to the favored team led by Reed Akley (David Harbour) but he’s obsessed with impressing Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), the brilliant leader of the misfit B-team who has a habit of bucking the chain of command. Olivia Williams is Frank’s wife Liza, a botany professor in her own right who is dismissed as simply another base wife by the military command even as she discovers the radiation accumulating around the camp (it’s killing the bees).
The tension between the military structure and civilian scientists and families is just part of the drama. Much of the story is caught up in the politics of the base: who gets to work on projects, how the money and equipment is used as leverage, how the culture of secrecy and suspicion undermines a sense of community and shared commitment. Hovering over it all is are representatives of the security services (notably West Wing veteran Richard Schiff) tracking every possible intelligence leak and possible sabotage attempt, especially after their mole in Germany is captured. At this point in the war, the focus is on the war in Europe and they are racing Hitler’s team to the bomb. Those stakes are more than simply a dramatic device. The fear of the Axis beating them to them bomb is a very real possibility.
This is the second original drama from the Chicago cable superstation and aspiring cable player WGN and it reaches for the level of human drama, social commentary, and historical perspective of shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Masters of Sex. It largely succeeds. Thomas Schlamme, who visualized Aaron Sorkin’s ideas on The West Wing, is an executive producer and directs the pilot, setting the tone of the show. The Spartan setting helps stretch the budget, which uses the dusty streets, shabby shack housing, and forlorn isolation in the middle of nowhere to define the atmosphere of this community, and the personal dramas and challenges define the culture of suspicion and the social world of wartime America, with all its prejudices and anxieties. Some of the storylines stumble a bit and the personal betrayals at times come off as dramatic contrivances, but at its best the series dramatizes the stakes of the project—and the cost in lives—in human terms, and it casts its gaze on a culture that has not been explored on the screen in any depth.
The second season begins on WGN later this year.
Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD with commentary tracks on select episodes and four featurettes. Both also include Ultraviolent Digital copies (the Blu-ray edition has Digital HD).