SANTA FE, New Mexico -- A secret city has sprouted in the scrubby hills of northern New Mexico, and its inhabitants are charged with carrying out a crucial mission.

Men wearing fedoras with the brims pulled low rush past women with hair swept into 1940s "victory roll" styles, their high heels clattering on boardwalks. Army jeeps zoom past in a cloud of dust. Somewhere a voice cries out: "Action."

These people aren't toiling away on the construction of a big bomb that will alter civilization forever. Instead, they're part of an effort to create TV's next big hit.

WGN America is hoping it has found the right formula with "Manhattan," a fictionalized retelling of the U.S. race to build the atomic bomb at the top-secret laboratory in Los Alamos during World War II. It premiered its 13-episode first season July 27. The Manhattan Project resulted in two bombs of unprecedented destructive power, dropped on Japan in August 1945, ending World War II and ushering in the atomic age.

The historical record is filled with fascinating real-life characters, from brilliant, controversial physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the scientific quest for the nuclear bomb, to imperious Gen. Leslie Groves, the Army engineer who oversaw construction of the clandestine worksite that eventually employed thousands but was known simply as the Hill.


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"Manhattan," filmed on location on the outskirts of Santa Fe, about a half-hour drive from Los Alamos, is using all that as just the backdrop for its story behind the story, however. The series is really about how webs of secrets and lies -- some official, others personal -- preyed upon project scientists and their families. The dramatic focus is on two fictional characters, volatile veteran scientist Frank (Broadway veteran John Benjamin Hickey) and whiz kid Charlie (Australian newcomer Ashley Zukerman), together with their inquisitive wives (Olivia Williams and Rachel Brosnahan).

"The families of these physicists who were building a device that we're all kind of living in the shadow of -- they had no idea what they were proximate to," says Sam Shaw, an ex-journalist who created the show and shepherded it through a lengthy gestation process. "The vast majority of them had no idea what the purpose of the town was. ... That was just really fascinating to me, from a human standpoint."

Executive producer Thomas Schlamme, a director best-known for his work on NBC's "The West Wing," joined the project after realizing the dramatic potential. "I'm a history buff, and I did not know the story," he says. "I knew the story of Oppenheimer and Groves ... but I had no idea about the story of the wives. I knew it was a secret city, but I didn't quite know how it stayed a secret city."

Though the "Manhattan" tale would seem to have a definitive endpoint, once the bombs level Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the show's creative team says it's still too soon to gauge the full effect of what unfolded at Los Alamos. The war ended, but the bomb goes on.

As Hickey describes his character's irony, "I'm building a destroyer of lives in order to save lives." That statement echoes Oppenheimer. "We knew the world would not be the same," the scientist recalled 20 years after the bombs exploded. He alluded to a line from the Hindu epic "The Bhagavad Gita": "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Secrets are the real radioactivity on display in "Manhattan," a theme that has special resonance amid the surveillance paranoia of the post-Edward Snowden era in this country.

The original idea for the series was not to write about the 1940s at all, according to Shaw, whose father, a retired criminal defense attorney, took on pro bono cases for the post-9/11 detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

"As you might expect, I had a thousand questions about what that experience entailed for him," Shaw says. "He could answer basically none of them" because of security concerns.

Intrigued, Shaw began researching a contemporary project that would deal with themes raised by terrorism and national security. But he found it difficult to write about that subject without more historical distance.

"Along the way, I did a lot of reading and research about the security state and the military industrial complex in America," he says. "What I began to discover was that all of those roads lead back to the New Mexico desert. The story of the birth of the bomb was sort of the origin story of a lot of the really thorny political questions that we're trying to figure out now."

Shaw soon decided that the best way to tell the Los Alamos story was through invented characters, rather than real-life scientists such as Richard Feynman or Robert Christy, who cast a long shadow at Los Alamos and long afterward. Only a few historical figures appear, fleetingly; actor Daniel London plays Oppenheimer as a slightly ominous, godlike figure. But such moments are rare.

Shaw and Schlamme point to the movie "Ragtime," based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, which imagined fictional characters whose lives were interwoven in real events from the early 1900s.

"Our hope was ... that we (could) capture something of the emotional truth of the time" using that kind of technique, Shaw says. He hopes that viewers who become familiar with the characters will see the parallels between the characters' lives and our own.

"One thing that is really fascinating to me is that a number of the physicists who were there (at Los Alamos) really believed that what they were doing was curing the world of war forever," he says, "that they would build a weapon, (but) it would never be used. The mere existence of (it) would make it totally impossible for countries to go to war" because it would mean mutually assured destruction.

"So we would find other methods of resolving our conflicts," he adds. "It seems so romantic and utopian now, but there is something hugely poignant about that."