The age of exploration is upon us. But it’s not in the stars or under the sea. At the moment, some of the most adventurous television series are looking backward, sifting for buried nuggets of history.
"Manh(a)ttan," a new series that began Sunday on WGN America, is a fictionalized but fact-based account of the wartime race to create an atomic bomb. A few characters are based on the real physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, notably J. Robert Oppenheimer, but most are invented: scientists; military officials; local workers, many of them Native Americans; wives; and, as was the case in reality, at least one female physicist.
Those were extraordinary times for most everybody, but these men and women lived behind barbed wire in a desert outpost so clandestine it didn’t have an address -- just P.O. Box 1663 -- in order to invent a weapon too advanced, powerful and top secret to be referred to by name. Its creators called it "the gadget."
It makes sense that television has become obsessed with pivotal moments and creative and scientific breakthroughs; the medium is in the middle of its own fissile chain reaction.
It’s not just the range of material that is available, even though "Manh(a)ttan" follows other imaginative and highly distinct period dramas like "Deadwood," "Mad Men" and "Masters of Sex.
WGN is not the first place people would turn to for a drama about the Manhattan Project. WGN America is a sports-oriented superstation that describes itself as the home of the "super fan." Until now, WGN’s interest in history was mostly limited to reruns of "Walker, Texas Ranger" and vintage Cubs games.
Then again, New Mexico was an unlikely location for a pop-up physics lab.
"Manh(a)ttan" opens with a desert dust storm and a scientist, Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), hitting golf balls into the abyss by the light of his car. It is July 1943, or, as the show puts it, "766 days before Hiroshima."
Frank is one of the leading physicists at Los Alamos heading a small team of young scientists trying to come up with a better way to produce plutonium. He is driven by competition with an arrogant rival physicist and also a haunting deadline: In those days, scientists felt they were working on a weapon that would end the war more quickly. Every minute lost was another lost life somewhere overseas. "One hundred American kids have been buried since we walked through that gate, by tomorrow morning there will be 100 more," Frank snaps at a colleague. "And you want me to slow down?"
But their goal is so closely guarded that new recruits show up not knowing what they signed up for. Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) finds himself lost in the desert with his skeptical wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), and young son. "They said it would be like Cambridge," Charlie says as he stares ruefully into a landscape of cactus, dust and tumbleweed. "Harvard with sand."
In some ways, of course, it is. There is camaraderie among scientists, brilliant work but also fierce competition, jealousies and turf battles.
Relations between scientists and military personnel are often fraught, and spouses are kept in the dark and left to their cliques and power circles -- Desperate Quonset Hutwives.
The show is paced like a thriller, and people, not physics, are in the foreground. But personal lives play out against a backdrop of war, secrecy and also paranoia: One scientist suspects that MPs rifle through his trash at night. Some of the scientists have backgrounds and political affiliations that rankle the brass, sometimes unjustly but not always. In real life, the German physicist and spy Klaus Fuchs worked at Los Alamos for part of the war and only confessed in 1950 to leaking atomic secrets to Moscow.
There are scores of books about the Manhattan Project, and so many biographies, documentaries and, of course, archives.
But until now, at least, Los Alamos wasn’t subject matter that lent itself easily to a TV series.
The atom bomb didn’t just end the war, it forever changed the peace. Richard Rhodes, the author of "The Making of the Atom Bomb," quotes Herbert S. Marks, general counsel of the Atomic Energy Commission, who said the Manhattan Project was a state unto itself that had "a peculiar sovereignty, one that could bring about the end, peacefully or violently, of all other sovereignties."
"Manh(a)ttan" provides a cleverly imagined portrait of the men and women who were at the center of that peculiar sovereignty.