Earlier this summer, WGN America—a name you may've recently heard mentioned by your cooler and more attractive TV-watching friends—debuted its second original series, the atomic-bomb drama Manhattan. Set in the 1940s in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the show revolves around a team of scientists who are racing to build the world's first atomic bomb—and lying to their families, who have no idea what they're working on. By placing a cast of complicated and conflicted characters under a microscope, Manhattan dramatizes and sheds light on a well-known event in American history while also exploring issues that are still relevant today, including national security and privacy.
I recently had the chance to chat with series creator Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) about how Manhattan came to be, why it's not actually about World War II despite its setting, and why Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) is so damn awesome. Here's what he had to say:
There are a lot of period dramas on TV right now; what made you want to do another one? And how did you decided to tackle this particular piece of American history?
Weirdly, this show began not as a period drama at all. I started working on a project that was set in the present day that involved the War on Terror, and it involved issues of national security and military secrecy. I have known a bunch of people who've been involved in some legal work that brushes up against matters of national security, and I got really interested in lawyers who were involved in cases representing people like detainees at Guantanamo and all the issues of secrecy that surround that work.
Part of what was really fascinating to me about it is that people who are involved in that work, huge amounts of the work they do is classified because they're brushing up against matters of national security and so they can't talk about it with their friends and their families, and that was really interesting to me. So weirdly this began as a piece of writing about a totally different war in a totally different decade and then in the process of researching that story, I just became fascinated by and obsessed with the story of the birth of the atomic bomb, which seems more and more to me to be the origin story of a whole bunch of cultural issues and problems and questions that we're grappling with today. Questions that have to do with military force, questions that have to do with secrecy and how much faith we place in big institutions to make decisions on our behalf without our knowledge. And also just secrecy and privacy on a bigger cultural level. This is a moment where it's sort of a brave new world of communication and privacy and secrecy, so the story of [Los Alamos]—this town that was simultaneously this town of secrets and also a place where nobody had any privacy—was fascinating to me to write about.
I do feel like Manhattan explores a lot of topics that are relevant today. Nuclear war is still a possibility, and the show kind of brings that to light.
I hope so! [Manhattan's] always felt very much [like] a story about the present day as much as it is a story about the past, but I can only speak for myself as a viewer, because there are a lot of period stories that I love.
Why do you think period dramas are experiencing such a resurgence?
To me, there are sort of two things. One is that I think it can be exciting for an audience to get immersed in a world that feels foreign in a lot of ways. I love tuning in to a story that is set in a time and a place that feels very different from any other story that I see on TV. Just building a world, I know, is exciting for me as a writer, and I think it can be exciting for a viewer, too. But I also hope that our show gives people the opportunity to think about the present day in a fresh way and to look at it with fresh eyes by looking at the past.
How did Manhattan end up on WGN America, as opposed to, say, AMC or HBO? Are there certain pros and cons to working on newer network as opposed to a more established one?
This is a weird moment we're living in right now. It's kind of a gold rush for complicated and interesting adult drama on cable. Just within the last 10 to 15 years there's been a whole wave of new upstart networks that nobody expected much from that have produced some of the most exciting stories on television. It sort of began with HBO and then FX. When FX started doing original programming, everybody thought, "What is the deal with this network that thinks its going to compete with HBO that we associate with reruns, et cetera?" And then AMC was the same deal. And in the last few years that was totally my experience, and I think a lot of people experienced [the same thing with] Netflix—it seems so crazy that Netflix is developing original programming. And Sundance, too, I think has done such amazing work over the last few years. I never would have guessed that my favorite TV of last year would have been on Sundance and it's crazy.
So part of it for us [was] that it was really exciting to work with a new network because I think networks become more and more risk averse once they've developed a profile and they've had a measure of success within the marketplace. And I don't think it's an accident that a lot of new networks right out of the gate produce really exciting work. Because they put a lot of faith in creators to just make the best shows that they can make and that was sort of our mandate from WGN, just to make the best possible version of the show that we loved that we could possibly make and so they've been fantastic partners to us. It's actually been a cool thing. Of course we have to help educate viewers about where to find our show and some people have preconceived ideas about WGN and some people don't have any idea about WGN at all. But that's been a really great relationship for us.
Let's talk about a few of the show's specifics. What kind of timeline do you have in mind for the story? I know that when Manhattan begins, it's two years before the bombs drop, but how quickly will things progress in Los Alamos?
Yeah, we start in July of 1943, and without getting too spoilery about exactly where the first season leaves off, the one thing I will say is that the vision for the show—and we hope that we get to keep telling the stories of these characters for a lot of years—but when we pitched and sold the show, we walked the network through a vision for six or seven seasons. And that has always been a story that actually extends well past the end of World War II. It's not a story that ends with the bomb getting dropped.
One thing that [director and executive producer] Tommy Schlamme and I say about the show sometimes—and it's really true for us—[is that] it's never been a show about World War II or about the end of the war. It's really a show about the beginning of an era and the stories of these characters and what becomes of them, the kind of moral dilemmas that they face, and the cost of secrecy in their lives just becomes incrementally much more complicated and fraught and emotionally pressure-filled once the bombs drops. And once World War II, with its kind of moral clarity, gets left behind, all these characters enter the much murkier terrain of the Cold War—which, really, in some ways, is what this is the story of, the birth of the Cold War.
Is that why nearly all of Manhattan's characters are fictional and not based on real people?
It's a mix of things. The show is a work of fiction—it's historical fiction, but it's fiction. It is more a story of the complicated interior lives of these characters and their family lives than it is a history of the development of the bomb. So we wanted to give ourselves the freedom to create those interior lives for the characters. Now, it's all written within a carefully researched historical context, so it's not like in Season 2 a bomb is going to get dropped on Seattle or something; we're sticking within the parameters of history. But it was also a choice to tell stories of some of the people in this world of the development of the bomb whose stories haven't really been told. There have been movies and a lot of books about [Robert] Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves—who was his parallel figure on the military side—stories with the bold names of history, but it felt much more interesting to us to write about and tell the stories of people who were just other nameless members of the seven or eight thousand people who lived in Los Alamos by the end of the war.
Since you mentioned your research, how did you go about conducting it? Did you enjoy the process, or was it just something you had to do for the good of the show?
I'm kind of a research junkie. I used to be a journalist and was a fiction writer too and loved learning about worlds I didn't know a lot about. That was part of my process in both of those areas. So the first thing I did was I read literally everything I could get my hands on about life at Los Alamos, the history of the bomb, and the history of atomic physics. One cool thing is that the historical record is incredibly deep. This is a moment in time when everyone who was involved in the project, even peripherally—even people who lived at Los Alamos who didn't know what the purpose of the town was, people who were on the outside of the secret—everyone knew that something remarkable was happening in this place. And so there are hundreds of memoirs and books of letters and primary source documents.
Sitting right in front of me on my desk is a book that is just a catalog of all the housing that was available in World War II in Los Alamos. It has blueprints and floor plans for every different kind of prefab house you could live in there. I have books that detail what foods were available at the grocery story there. For me, it's really exciting to get to breathe all that stuff in because it just creates a world that feels real and credible and textured. For me, stories kind of come to life in their specifics and their details, so I just read everything I could read and [listened] to oral histories, podcasts, and documentaries. That was a process of a few years, basically. And it's ongoing. My wife still complains that every time we leave, I will travel with a bag of heavy books on atomic physics. It's become a rule in our house that I have to bring at least one book that has nothing to do with the apocalypse with me when we go on vacation. And that's not just for me. It's for all of the writers, the directors, the production designers, everybody really fell in love with the research involved in this project.
Olivia Williams' character Liza really surprised me in the pilot, and I don't really know why. She's such a strong woman—she's not afraid to challenge Frank, and she's a scientist, too. I've seen a couple people express concern that Manhattan will become a family soap opera because of the storylines surrounding the various women in Los Alamos, and I find that idea kind of offensive, the idea that can't talk about the women without devolving into a quote-unquote soap opera. So I guess my question is, why did you decide to include this strong female character in what is mostly a boys club?
Her character isn't based on any specific historical figure, but ... I think I came to the time period with a set of preconceived ideas about what marriages looked like in the 1940s, and I think some of it is influenced by what marriages looked like in America mostly in the 1950s. But the truth is, there were a lot of incredibly brilliant and incredibly strong and complicated women who were in [Los Alamos]. [They] were put in an impossible position [because] a lot of them were very highly educated and they had lived in these liberal arts oases of academia. They had these really rich intellectual lives and were in partnerships with their spouses where they were on equal footing. It was really cool and interesting to read about some of those marriages.
[But] then they were thrust into this place where the thing that had been the lifeblood of that relationship—which was this open and honest communication between equals—was cut off. It's such an impossible place to be in, so from the beginning Liza was a character whose situation was at the heart of the whole project for me. I was really interested in her, interested in her situation, and interested in what it is to be someone who doesn't really fit in anywhere in the world of our show. Because she's not working on the project, the scientists kind of regard her as a housewife, and because she's a scientist, the wives, by and large, regard her as an outsider. So she's sort of caught between worlds.
It's actually a role I wrote for Olivia Williams. I think she's so brilliant in everything she does. It was really gratifying when she signed on to play the role. So much of the character's energy and wit and strength is Olivia's; she's a really brilliant person in her own right.
I also really loved seeing Richard Schiff in Episode 2. What can you share about his character and how big of a role he'll play this season, if any?
I want to avoid spoilers, but I will say this: I think that there's lightness and there's comedy and there's fun in our show. There's young love. Part of the deal about Los Alamos that is fascinating to me is, in spite of how heavy a lot of the work was, it was sort of the golden moment for a lot of the scientists who were there. They looked back on it very fondly later in life. Even if they had huge misgivings about what they'd been involved with, and [even] if the moral complexities weighed on them, for many of them this was a wonderful time. And we explore all of that. But there's no question that there's a darkness to this subject matter. This is the moment when the CIA was born. It's a moment when the national security apparatus was born. [Schiff's character] really gives us access to that world. I don't want to say too much about how much we'll see of him or what role he'll play, except to say that when someone like Richard Schiff comes to your set and is as brilliant as he is in the show, you find a way to keep writing for him. I'm so thrilled that he's been a part of this show. I think he's really, really great.
Up until the end of Episode 2, the Army was kind of an annoying obstacle for the scientists, but in Episode 3, the aftermath of Sid's death brought about more interaction between the two groups. How is that relationship going to progress? And how will Sid's death affect Frank and his team?
There's two halves to that. ... The kid who pulls the trigger and shoots Sid at the end of the Episode 2—you'll have to stick around to see in what way he becomes a significant part of our story, but he does.
We didn't see much of the military side of the equation in the first two episodes, but we see more and more as the story unfolds. And that's been intriguing for us. It's not just a story about scientists, it's a story about this whole other culture living in this place. There's this sort of weird culture clash between the army and this world of academics and physicists. That's really something we're excited to be able to write about more.
And in terms of how Sid's death affects Frank and the group, that shot that gets fired at the end of the second episode echoes through the whole season in some complicated ways. It sets in motion some stories that are going to have big consequences for all the characters, through to the season finale.
Manhattan airs Sundays at 10pm on WGN America.
AIRED ON 12/15/2015
Season 2 : Episode 10