Nostalgic cable series ‘Manhattan’ re-creates America’s not-so-simpler times

07/25/2014 7:00 AM

07/26/2014 11:59 PM

Nuclear physics can’t solve the most basic equation in “Manhattan,” an account of America’s most terrifying scientific triumph, where the only variable that matters is time.

Deep inside barricades of barbed wire and Army trucks, a huge single number dominates a chalkboard crammed with tiny hydrodynamics tables. The figure is 37,855, the number of American casualties and counting.

“Manhattan” begins 776 days before Hiroshima, and Los Alamos, N.M., is a secret nowhere filled with geniuses recruited to weaponize the atom.

Somewhere in Germany, they’re told, is a town full of scientists with a better work ethic.

“Whose son will die in the last minutes of the war?” a billboard asks on the road into town. It’s a theme that keeps the urgency humming in “Manhattan,” WGN’s original drama created by “Masters of Sex” writer Sam Shaw.

Like that acclaimed series, “Manhattan” wanders between fact and fiction, mixing real people with created characters while keeping history’s timeline more or less intact.

Yes, we found out 70 years ago how World War II turned out, but we’re still figuring out what wars do to us. That’s why we’re taking this ride with scientist Frank Winter.

As Frank, John Benjamin Hickey of “The Good Wife” becomes a walking aha! moment in a rumpled suit, a welcome cocktail of integrity, pragmatism and affection for his family. He’s not about to spill the beans to his wife, a world-renowned botanist who tries not to ask questions, let alone his teenage daughter, who just asks too many.

When a young Jewish scientist tells him the classic cautionary tale of the golem, the monster summoned by a 16th-century rabbi to save the Prague ghetto’s Jews, Frank pauses to smoke and asks, “Have you been to Prague lately? There aren’t any Jews left.”

All of the prize-winning Ph.Ds in town deal with the stress of their mission in different ways. Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), the new arrival worried about the golem, puffs up with pride when he’s chosen for the “Thin Man” team, whose plans for a gun-like fission weapon have been getting all of Robert Oppenheimer’s attention — and all the plutonium.

That doesn’t mean much to Abby Isaacs, who had more than a dusty wilderness in mind for her husband’s first paying job. Rachel Brosnahan, who made a name for herself as a D.C. call girl on “House of Cards,” is magnetic as a young, resourceful wife who isn’t about to accept the Army’s hear-no-evil policy.

With their lives packed for a road trip down a dusty highway, Charlie and Abby Isaacs could almost be that lovable, arrogant future astronaut Gordo Cooper and his skeptical wife, Trudy, heading for the test pilot program at Edwards Air Force base at the beginning of “The Right Stuff.”

Just like Trudy, Abby doesn’t feel better when she settles into their new housing. Just like at Edwards, the water doesn’t work, the walls are thin, and the other women are operating by a baffling set of unspoken rules.

Frank’s wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), eventually lets her in on a few secrets, but Abby can’t stand being watched and spied on by the Army even as she’s kept in the dark. It isn’t long before she convinces Charlie to turn up the radio and whisper in her ear.

The other scientists’ wives lower their martinis and perk their ears up at the Fourth of July party when Abby lets on that Charlie told her something.

“They call it ‘The Gadget,’” she blurts to the tight perimeter of Avon smirks and raised eyebrows. “It’s a very complicated radar system that can spot one of Hitler’s warplanes from the other side of the world.”

The group of wives obviously have cards to play, but they’re not the only women wielding power in Los Alamos. Before they got their IBM machines, scientists handed off their heavy math to a group of “computers,” young women with sharp skills, dry wit and a willingness to work overtime for contraband nylons.

Dutch actress Katja Herbers plays Helen Prins, one of the few female physicists invited to play with the boys. It’s no accident she’s on Frank’s team, the long-shot black sheep of the compound. When she bonds with Charlie, their very friendship puts them both in danger.

Frank remains unimpressed with Charlie, and their clashes grow more heated as Abby and Liza grow closer. The first Winter-Isaacs couples night ends with Frank opening his front door, tossing two coats into the street and saying, “Get home safe.”

But surely Charlie and Frank will eventually join forces, so they can have a satisfying “Good Will Hunting” montage with loosened ties and chalkboard hieroglyphics.

Until then, Frank has his epiphanies alone, using the desert as his nighttime driving range. He figures out enough to head back to the office, berate his oddball team of scientists and send them scrambling, just like Hugh Laurie in “House.”

After everyone else has gone home, Frank finds a scorpion on his desk and traps it under a highball glass, and they both struggle valiantly all night.

We know that spies did infiltrate what was first named the Development of Substitute Materials, so it makes sense that “Manhattan” is also an espionage thriller, with military police and black-suited interrogators behind every corner.

Federal agents demand proof of citizenship at checkpoints in the American Southwest. Lawmakers use an attack on U.S. soil to strip citizens of their rights. The military makes a commitment to deadly technologies we can’t conceive of facing at home. For those who don’t keep their noses clean, Los Alamos becomes Guantanamo in a flash.

You’d think most of the men in “Manhattan” would be straight-laced enough for the Army, with their horn rims and short-sleeved dress shirts, chain-smoking Pall Malls at their desks over slide rules, legal pads and Marchant calculators. You can almost smell the mimeograph paper.

But every time the 1943 of Manhattan begins to feel like 2014, it returns to the nostalgia of movies like “The Right Stuff,” where brains and grit make the peace, back to a time when America trusted its fate to the smartest guys we could find.

To reach Sara Smith, send email to ssmith@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.

WHERE TO WATCH

“Manhattan” premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on WGN America.

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