After taking viewers far back in time with “Salem,” WGN America is moving up to the nuclear age.
The cable channel’s second original drama series, “Manhattan” — as in “Manhattan Project” — debuts Sunday (July 27), recalling the World War II-era development of atomic weapons through the stories of the scientists and spouses brought together in Los Alamos, N.M.
Not everyone knew everything about the mission, and some far less than others, so information became a prized commodity in the community that was created.
The ensemble cast combines such television veterans as Daniel Stern (the adult voice of Kevin on “The Wonder Years”) and John Benjamin Hickey (“The Big C”) with relative home-screen newcomers including Olivia Williams (“The Sixth Sense”) and Christopher Denham (“Argo”).
The “Manhattan” premiere will get an encore on Tribune-owned stations across the country the same night as its WGN America showing. Creator and executive producer Sam Shaw says the program’s seed was planted about six years ago.
“It was sort of inspired by conversations with my dad, who had just retired,” he explains to Zap2it. “He was a criminal defense attorney, and since he couldn’t just sit around not working on something, he took on a bunch of pro bono cases.”
Shaw notes that some of those involved “Yemeni men who were detainees at Guantanamo. I had a million questions — and because he was dealing with matters of national security, he could answer very few of them, even really simple and practical ones. The idea that you could be involved in work that had all kinds of political and moral implications, and that you couldn’t share that experience with the people you were closest to, was fascinating to me.”
Cast in “Manhattan” as Glen Babbit, a father figure to the other physicists working on the Project, Stern also directs the eighth episode of the series, being filmed on a 12-acre New Mexico set. He couldn’t resist when the extra opportunity was offered by longtime friend Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”), both a director and another executive producer of the show.
Stern cites Hickey’s character, Frank Winter, as “a genius force, but without the social skills to turn those ideas into reality. The young bucks on the science team all have great, fresh minds, but need guidance and direction to focus their energies in the right way.
“That is where Glen comes in,” Stern says, “and I love the tone of the part. He’s got wisdom, he’s got secrets of his own, and he can get the best out of people.”