Ambitious young scientists are at the center of WGN America’s second scripted series, “Manhattan,” set in the deserts of New Mexico where a top-secret compound held the nation’s top scientific minds as they set about building a nuclear bomb in a race, presumably, against enemy nations who are doing much the same. The historical drama follows the scientists as they move their unknowing families into the desert and then are unable to even tell them what they’re doing there. Part spy thriller, part interpersonal drama, the show nevertheless feels a bit too slow even with such intrigue at its core.
The first two episodes screened for press jumps right into things, as we follow Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), a brilliant young scientist recruited for the project, moving into the compound with his unsuspecting wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), who would understandably prefer he take a job in the city with her father’s firm. Charlie is assigned to one team of scientists, and immediately butts heads with Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), who’s on the opposing team and leading a scrappy band of underdogs that Charlie would clearly get along with, if only they weren’t rivals.
The show relies heavily on the science and secrecy behind the Manhattan Project, which makes it rather unfathomable that such an intriguing true history could be pared down to such a slow-moving, though not always tension-free drama. “Manhattan” mostly neglects Abby and Frank’s wife Liza (Olivia Williams), who show up only occasionally to question their husbands on the secretive nature of their work, and it’s a good question whether the show suffers for it.
“Manhattan,” which is also gorgeously cinematic, would do better to choose whether it wants to focus on the science and the government secrets aspect of the show, or whether it wants to focus more on the personal lives of its scientists. Right now, it’s an unbalanced juggling act of two pieces that don’t quite fit together.
“Manhattan” premieres on WGN America on Sunday, July 27th at 9pm.