WGN America’s 13-episode series Manhattan, about the race to build the world’s first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, NM, is not an allegory for current politics, creator Sam Shaw insisted today at TCA Summer TV Press Tour 2014, despite suggestions otherwise by some member of the cast, and by journalists.
“It’s not The Crucible,” Shaw said, drawing blank looks from some in the Golden Globes ballroom of the Beverly Hilton as he referenced Arthur Miller’s play — in which the Salem witch trials stands in for the McCarthy era’s Committee on Un-American Activities. Maybe sensing the hesitation, Shaw acknowledged that, even when not intended, storytelling about the past “has a lot to say about this moment in time,” he said, putting the bloggers/tweeters in the hall back on more familiar ground.
Earlier, Shaw got asked if J. Robert Oppenheimer — sometimes called the father of the atomic bomb, and who appeared in the first episode — would be a regular or recurring character, and if other historical figures would populate the cast. “This is not going to be a Great Men of History piece,” he said, rather, a series that trying to “capture something of what life was like for the other 7,000 people living at Los Alamos.” The model, he said, is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime — “It’s he texture of a time and place, populated with fictional characters.”
That led one TV critic to question the use of make-believe people to develop real atomic bombs.
“There’s a fine line between fact and fiction, particularly when dealing with scientific discovery,” Shaw acknowledged, but said they’ve been able to “create a show that has scientific verisimilitude but isn’t robbing the grave of history.”
Episodes are shot in and around an abandoned Army hospital they found in New Mexico that was due to be demolished and “was filled with asbestos,” director/EP Thomas Schlamme said. There they “created a whole world [the actors] could walk into, that didn’t feel like a sound stage, but something more along the lines of what it felt like for the men and women who were transported from their homes on the east and west coast, and “plopped into the desert” to work on, or in support of, the Manhattan Project.
Asked if the government was “cooperating” with the production, Schlamme responded the government was not restricting them in any way, “so, from my point of view, they are cooperating.” And when one TV critic asked if the anti-Semitism of that era in the U.S. would be depicted, Schlamme said, “both my parents fled Nazi Germany, so I can promise you it’s a theme.”
WGN America is pulling out all the stops for the premiere of the original scripted drama series. When it debuts on July 27, the premiere episode will be seen not only on WGN America but also on Tribune stations in 33 markets nationwide including WPIX/New York, KTLA/Los Angeles, WGN/Chicago, WPHL/Philadelphia and WDCW/Washington, DC. From Shaw (Masters Of Sex), director Thomas Schlamme, Skydance TV, Tribune Studios and Lionsgate TV, follows the brilliant but flawed Los Alamos scientists and their families. John Benjamin Hickey, Daniel Stern, Olivia Williams, Ashley Zukerman and Rachel Brosnahan star.
On July 4, WGN America aired a half-hour original special looking at 1940s Los Alamos. Premiere of The Manhattan Project: Beyond The Bomb was followed by airings on Tribune stations nationwide. After the series premiere, Manhattan will continue its run on WGN America, Sundays at its regular time, 10 PM ET.