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WGN America’s ‘Manhattan': Hard to build, easy to bomb

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Olivia Williams, John Benjamin Hickey, Daniel Stern, Ashley Zuckerman, Rachel Brosnahan in “Manhattan.”

“Manhattan,” a drama premiering 9 p.m. Sunday on the newly ambitious WGN America, valiantly tries to coax some radioactive clicks from whatever metaphorical half-life remains in the origin story of the bomb.

Set in 1943 in New Mexico, the show zeros in on a fictitious set of scientists and engineers who have been recruited into the real-life, top-secret Manhattan Project, where they race to perfect an atomic weapon that will end World War II but also uncork an irretrievable horror.

This is material that anyone with even a passing interest in military or Cold War history will already know. Created and written by Sam Shaw (whose credits include writing some episodes of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”) and executive-produced and directed by Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”), “Manhattan” starts off by somewhat condescendingly assuming its viewers have never heard of the nuclear age.

Some strong performances peek through, especially from “Manhattan” star John Benjamin Hickey (the fickle CEO of ChumHum on CBS’ “The Good Wife”).

Hickey plays Frank Winter, a brilliant physicist who runs a rag-tag team of brainiacs; his team is in competition with a larger, official group of scientists at Los Alamos tasked with building “the gadget,” with each team vying for more resources and the attention of the project’s director, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Olivia Williams co-stars as Frank’s wife, Liza, who holds a Ph.D. in botany and nevertheless finds herself keeping house on the base and learning not to ask too many questions. (“It’s Kafkaesque!” the couple’s bored teenage daughter declares of life on a base no one knows exists.)

The show is being promoted by WGN America as a bold work of estimable television. It’s not, but compared with the network’s cheesy “Salem” (which has been renewed for a second season), “Manhattan” is certainly a couple of steps up.

Even with its flaws, “Manhattan” might find its formula. The second episode is already brisker and more subtly intriguing in places than the first – it’s exciting, even. Still, I can’t shake the worry that “Manhattan” will soon deploy the doomsday weapon of all overblown historical dramas: sepia tone. (And if that happens, duck and cover.)

Hank Stuever writes for The Washington Post.
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