If its first couple of original series are anything to go by, WGN America is a network that is heavily inspired by this country’s past, with both Salem and Manhattan offering different takes on dark periods in history. But how historically accurate is Manhattan and its depiction of the formation of the atomic bomb during World War II, anyway? Quite spot on in some ways, it seems, while not so much in others.
Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure of visiting the set for Manhattan during the production for Season 2, and I got a chance to speak with the show’s historical consultant, author Alex Wellerstein, and the science consultant, Professor David Saltzberg. I asked if they thought Manhattan was the best on-screen representation of this ridiculously important time period, and while Saltzberg said it was for him, Wellerstein went into more detail.
I would just say that ‘best’ is tricky. Is it the most accurate depiction of the Manhattan Project in fiction? No, no. They take a lot of liberties with the actual historical plots. Does it get the flavor right? Well, they amp up some things, so some of this cloak and dagger is a little more extreme than actual. But they get a lot right.
Now, even though someone like physicist Robert Oppenheimer exists both in the fabric of the series and in the real world, this show is clearly based on fictional people within a realistic setting, dealing with their own personal problems as well as trying to figure out how to build the most powerful weapon the world has ever seen. So it’s not as important to me that the marital problems of Charlie and Abby aren’t based on historical records as it is that the series gets the overall feel of that time correct.
Wellerstein had more to say, explaining how the drama in Season 1 was more successful to him than other projects that adhere too closely to the facts.
What I really like is that I get bugged sometimes when things go the other direction – they make it tamer, or they make it seem more obvious and straightforward than it was. In the world of the Manhattan Project that they have, the scientists don’t know what’s gonna happen in the future. They do not know the right answer. And that is the real world of the time. So as a historian, they capture that spirit extremely well. They make the past seem like anything could happen, and that is often sorely missing from fictional recreations.
On the set, we were also shown the show’s representation of the first and second versions of the bomb that will appear in Season 2, and while the designs were heavily based on those of the actual explosives from the 1940s, some of it was changed to make it look a little more visually interesting. So much like when telling stories to friends about past experiences, it’s often better to nail the gist than every single detail,especially when you’re trying to entertain millions of TV viewers.
Manhattan will return to WGN America for Season 2 this fall starting Tuesday, October 13.