Manhattan Recreates the Secret Project to Make an Atom Bomb

John Benjamin Hickey and Daniel Stern in ManhattanEXPAND
John Benjamin Hickey and Daniel Stern in Manhattan

Mad Men has captivated viewers in part because of its unique setting, 1950s and 60s Madison Avenue, and WGN's new hour-long drama Manhattan, which premieres on Sunday at 9 p.m., looks to be a similar vehicle for 1940s Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Created by Sam Shaw, Manhattan tells the story of the Manhattan Project, a hugely secretive government operation that corralled the country’s most elite young scientists and physicists and their families in Los Alamos, where they would design the atomic bomb. No American civilians knew about the project’s existence, and Los Alamos' inhabitants were forced to grapple with the morality of what they were doing, the pressure under which they were doing it, and at the same time, the normal, everyday concerns of friends, family and work. 

“This town was extraordinary and remarkable in every way," says Shaw.

The idea for Manhattan came to Shaw about seven years ago, he says, but with some very different particulars — he was inspired to write about modern-day terrorism and military secrecy. But “it was really tricky to me to write about the politics of the present day with any kind of objectivity, particularly because the story is still unfolding,” he says.

Shaw tabled the story, but couldn’t let go of the idea. It wasn’t until months later, still immersed in research on the topic, that he stumbled across a book that flipped the light switch on. 

“I wound up encountering a stray sentence about the Manhattan Project, this very weird city in the middle of the New Mexico desert,” he says. He was struck by the way in which Los Alamos grew to function as a seemingly normal suburb, but boiling just under its surface were government secrets that husbands couldn't their wives, that friends couldn't share with one another, and that throughout it all, the town itself existed completely unbeknownst to the outside world. The project "produced the world’s first atomic bomb, but also this whole culture of military secrecy that we are grappling with now,” he says.

Shaw ran with the idea. Once he sold the show to WGN, he and other writers enlisted the help of scientists and researchers, set designers and historians, and eventually decamped for New Mexico to rebuild the Manhattan Project as accurately as possible. The cast and crew have been shooting there since March of this year, and the realities of desert life have lent an authenticity to the fabric of the show.

“Instead of being a show that’s shot on a hermetically sealed soundstage,” says Shaw, “we have this sort of three-dimensional world of 1940s New Mexico. Actors look out the window and it’s real dust. There’s all this sort of texture and reality to the show that I hope people will feel.”

Most of the characters in Manhattan aren’t based on real people – although Shaw has been influenced by his research about the real Los Alamos scientists in creating them. But the story that Manhattan hopes to tell isn’t necessarily one of perfect historical recreation, so much as an examination of human conflict, self-reflection, and the extraordinary juxtaposed against the mundane.

Says Shaw, “What is the relationship between the everyday stuff of these characters’ private, emotional lives and this huge, dramatic sweeping story of a world war and cold war that came after?”

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