LOS ANGELES — Writer-producer Sam Shaw was grappling with how to craft a TV drama about the war on terror and the price it exacts from those who keep its secrets.
He found the answer by looking back to the early 1940s, when U.S. scientists and others working in isolation created the first atomic bombs without the knowledge of Congress, the vice president or the American public.
The result is “Manhattan,” debuting Sunday, July 27, (9 p.m.) on cable channel WGN America. The drama is set in a makeshift, desolate Southwestern desert community, one of several that sprang up as part of the Manhattan Project aiming to beat Nazi Germany to the bomb.
“I wound up shelving the modern idea, in part because it’s really difficult to write about history in the making with any kind of objectivity and moral clarity,” Shaw said.
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But his research showed him that the birth of the atomic bomb was “the birth of a huge number of issues and problems … we’re still trying to parse 70 years later.”
Among the questions “Manhattan” raises: to what extent do we trust our leaders, and how much freedom and privacy are we willing to surrender to protect the nation and its ideals, including those primary ones?
Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”) is an executive producer and directed the pilot. The cast includes John Benjamin Hickey (“Transformers,” “The Good Wife”), Rachel Brosnahan (“House of Cards”), Ashley Zukerman (“Terra Nova,” “Rush”) and Olivia Williams (“Rushmore”).
The World War II-era drama is the second original series for WGN America, part of its initiative to expand beyond Chicago sports and broadcast network reruns. It follows last spring’s debut of “Salem,” set in the 17th-century witch-obsessed village.
“Manhattan” fulfills WGN America’s goal of entertaining viewers while taking them to “a time and place, with a palpable sense of what it was like to live in that moment,” said Matt Cherniss, president and general manager.
The scientists who were gathered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration in Los Alamos, New Mexico, were the best and the brightest, Shaw said. They became part of a very young settlement, with the average age of Manhattan Project workers there about 25, he said.
Families, the military and locals are part of the combustible mix in “Manhattan.”
The real scientists were fervently dedicated to the cause, even if some later came to regret the deadly force they helped unleash, Shaw said.
“Almost everyone there was completely convinced that if they didn’t get there first, (German) atomic bombs would rain down on the cities of Europe and America, as well,” he said.
Shaw came to “Manhattan” from Showtime’s very different “Masters of Sex,” on which he was a writer until he got the greenlight for his own series.
“I don’t know how I traded sex and nudity for nuclear apocalypse,” he said, jokingly. But he noted that life isn’t entirely staid for the characters of “Manhattan,” despite the dark mushroom cloud in their future.
“All those physicists had a lot of steam to blow off, so there was a fair amount of misbehavior. … It’s part of the human dimension of what it was like to live in this place,” he said.