Manhattan is an earnest attempt to dramatize the lives of the scientists and their families living in tactical isolation and under strict security in Los Alamos, N.M., during the latter part of World War II.
The United States is racing to design and build an atomic bomb before the Germans can develop the devastating next-generation weapon themselves.
The action centers on two teams competing for primacy, funding, and resources. John Benjamin Hickey (who plays Chumhum founder Neil Gross on The Good Wife) gives an intense performance as Frank Winter, a scientist completely consumed with the project.
His rival is the urbane Reed Akley (David Harbour), who is much better at playing the bureaucratic game. And in this arena, politics can still trump pure science.
The new kid on the post is Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman, who looks like a younger version of Parenthood's Tom Amandes). He's written a brilliant paper on nuclear cosmology or something. Everyone with multiple Ph.D.s is suitably impressed.
Charlie's wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan of House of Cards), comes from an Eastern country-club background and is having trouble adjusting to their dusty new settings. Indeed, the wind blows across the desert moonscape on this show so fiercely, they all appear to be living in a blast zone.
Winter's wife, Liza (Olivia Williams of Dollhouse), is teaching Abby the ropes in their catch-22 society. It's tough on the wives. Their husbands are stressed out, the living conditions are primitive, and they're kept in the dark about the reasons they're here.
"Our work is so classified the vice president doesn't know we exist," Winter barks at an M.P.
None of them are historical characters, although J. Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the project, shows up in a cameo, played by Daniel London as a mumbling mystic with faraway eyes.
I have to admit to a prejudice here. I'm not fond of period pieces on TV set in earlier decades of modern America. Dramas like Mad Men, Masters of Sex, Magic City, Halt and Catch Fire, and Vegas. They rely heavily on the veneer of costume and set design, and never seem to surmount their pretensions and artificiality.
So I'm not predisposed toward this latest ambitious series from WGN America (Ch. 568 on Fios; Ch. 307 on DirecTV and Xfinity OnDemand the day after it runs).
Manhattan (9 p.m. Sunday) is awfully overwrought, stocked with personalities as volatile as the radioactive isotopes they're trying to tame. Its melodramatic tone makes it resemble Lifetime's Army Wives more than it does A Beautiful Mind.
9 p.m. Sunday on WGN America