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'Manhattan' Fights to Stand Out Amidst Atomized Landscape

The second season of Manhattan, the ambitious drama on WGN America, kicks off Oct. 13, and Thomas Schlamme, a veteran of The West Wing, ER, Sports Night and other culturally impactful broadcast shows, says WGNA has been a stellar partner for the period-piece series. “They truly want you to make the show you believe in,” says Schlamme. “It’s been nothing but creatively rewarding for us.”

The series is set in Los Alamos in the early 1940s amidst the race to build the first atomic bomb. The showrunner is Sam Shaw, who was a writer on another offbeat period piece, Masters of Sex on Showtime. 

There’s a new character this season, as William Petersen, former lead in the original CSI franchise, takes on the role of the intensely religious ranking officer Colonel Emmett Darrow. Petersen was a pretty significant get for a smallish series; Schlamme said there was some interest from Petersen, who then binge-watched the first season, and presumably liked what he saw.

“Sam and the writers created this new character, and it was very important that this be somebody who could immediately create a character without words,” says Schlamme, who’s also the director. “As soon as you see him on screen, you know there’s a new sheriff in town.”

Shaw calls it a “radically different kind of role” for the veteran actor.

The critics mostly seemed to like the first season. James Poniewozik, then of Time, gave Manhattan a thoughtful essay last fall. He said: Manhattan‘s first season hasn’t been flawless; its themes and exposition can be clumsy, and the production seems a little threadbare. But it’s been a fascinating twist on the disparate-soldiers-thrown-together-in-a-foxhole war story, following people whose wisdom doesn’t always match their intelligence.

Shaw and Schlamme are awaiting word on a third season. “We have a lot more stories in us,” says Shaw.

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.