“Salem,” WGN's first original scripted drama, is an unapologetic piece of trash, perhaps best summed up by the scene in the pilot where a naked Janet Montgomery – playing an actual Salem witch in a way that weirdly justifies all of the religion-fueled paranoia of the period – lets a toad suckle at a nipple on her thigh. While a channel's first scripted show isn't always representative of what follows, they tend to create expectations for what's to come, and it would have been easy to assume that WGN's plan was to lean heavily on campy genre fare.
But “Manhattan,” WGN's second original drama (it debuts Sunday night at 9), is as far in tone and ambition and quality from “Salem” as the New Mexico desert of 1943 is from 17th century Massachusetts. At a minimum, it suggests you shouldn't assume anything about whatever the channel's going to do next.
Created Sam Shaw and directed by Emmy winner Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”), the show deals with the women and (mostly) men of the Manhattan Project, whose job it is to build a working atomic bomb before the Germans can, and to bring an end to World War II before the American casualty total gets too big.
In the dusty hills of Los Alamos, on a military base simply called Nowhere, we meet two rival teams working on different bomb designs. One is led by the smooth, handsome, highly-polished physicist Reed Akley (David Harbour), whose underlings all look machine-minted. The other is led by Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey, aka ChumHum boss Neil Gross from “The Good Wife”), a brusque, rumpled iconoclast whose smaller team features misfits of various sizes, genders and national origins. Guess which one we're supposed to root for? Would it help if I told you that Winter's mentor and colleague Glen Babbit is played by Daniel Stern sporting a very long and eccentric white beard?
The show does play with our sympathies a bit by assigning Nowhere newcomer – and the audience's surrogate – Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) to Akley's team, and by showing Winter treating him badly. But overall, “Manhattan” makes its intentions fairly plain, including its desire to evoke other historical dramas about brilliant but prickly men (like “Masters of Sex,” where Shaw previously worked).
At least in the two episodes I've seen, it's not at the level its progenitors were at the same stage. Even for a show about secrets, where the men aren't allowed to tell their wives what they do for a living – the bomb itself is referred to as “the gadget” – Winter is perhaps too much of a riddle in the early going for Hickey to be able to carry the show, while Isaacs is too much a collection of naive new guy tropes.
But the show also does interesting things with the wives – particularly Frank Winter's wife Liza (Olivia Williams), a botanist struggling to feel good about a life that for the moment has been turned over entirely to her husband's secret work – and the period itself is inherently fascinating.
And Schlamme's contributions can't be overstated. The rise of visually adventurous cable dramas in recent years may have overshadowed Schlamme's gliding, classical compositions and outstanding work with actors on network shows like “The West Wing,” “Sports Night” and more. But his participation was the best thing about ABC's short-lived “Pan Am,” and his work is even more striking and engrossing on “Manhattan.” The opening scene – Winter hitting golf balls in the middle of a windy, dusty desert night, lit only by his car's headlights – is gorgeous, and his style blends perfectly in with the period. There are many scenes of characters walking and talking, but also sequences that are extremely tense, or surprising, or strange, simply for the way Schlamme shoots them.
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about “Manhattan” at this point. But I like the cast (Schlamme's old “West Wing” pal Richard Schiff has a great guest turn in episode 2) and love the setting and what Shaw and Schlamme do with it. And the production as a whole is such a huge leap forward from “Salem” that I simply wanted to give WGN an attaboy for setting its sights so much higher the second time around.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com