BEVERLY HILLS -- It was a secret undertaking carried out in the middle of the desert and no one involved was quite sure what the outcome would be. The Manhattan Project was America's herculean effort to end World War II by creating an atomic bomb. The country's top scientists and their families found themselves in Los Alamos, N.M., in the mid-1940s charged with a task that had never been done before.
That is the subject of WGN America's drama series Manhattan, premiering July 27. This is not the usual view of the famous physicists we know from American History 101. This is a fictionalized tale of the families who lived there, on the outskirts of civilization, and the men who agonized over the challenge.
The story focuses on a small group of these scruffy geniuses. There was such a group, says the show's creator, Sam Shaw, but the characters themselves are fictional.
"This was a $2 billion black ops that was going on at this point," says Thomas Schlamme, one of the executive producers. "I mean, the U.S. Congress did not know about it. The vice president did not know about it. And yet it cost $2 billion in 1944. So you can imagine what that was and what an enormous scientific achievement that was that they were able to do that."
At the same time, 50,000 workers at Hanford were racing to produce plutonium for this atomic bomb. The New Mexico site had many similarities with Hanford, from people traveling to a remote western location to the secrecy surrounding the work.
Rachel Brosnahan, who plays one of the men's wives, says her role is not like any she's ever done. "One of the things I love about this show is it doesn't just explore the scientists. It also explores their families, and we were privileged enough to have some women come visit us on set who grew up in Los Alamos. One of them very vividly recalled when her mother found out exactly what they had done and what they had been doing there -- because she had had no idea for all the time they had been there. And she recalls her being violently, physically ill and that nothing was ever the same after that because, how could it be?"
The series was shot in a remote area of New Mexico in an abandoned Army hospital that had to be cleared of asbestos before filming could begin.
Daniel Stern, who plays physicist Glen Babbit, believes the lessons of the period can be applied today. "I think it's an interesting way to do a commentary on our society now. Rather than directly talking about secrets or our NSA spying or our decisions about how we go to war or what wars we fight or how we fight them or drone activity -- all of the things happening now. It's an interesting way, I think, to bring up those topics but with a little distance, with a little fiction between it. And it gives a chance to have that discussion. So there's a lot of issues that we maybe can't talk about or aren't as dramatic in the present that I think can lead to interesting storytelling and mirror what our situation is now."