While most World War II dramas take place on the battlefield, Manhattan takes a different tact, focusing on Los Alamos, New Mexico and the intelligent, overworked scientists who willingly uprooted their families to work on the secret plan to build an atomic bomb, led by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London).Created by Sam Shaw (who wrote several episodes of Masters of Sex), the series emphasizes how despite the importance of the project, these men were very competitive; whoever builds the bomb first, wins the war.

Leading the first of two teams, working on designs for “the gadget” is Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) a haggard, tenacious man with several things working against him. The “compartmentalized” military isn’t giving him the assets he needs, because it’s the other teams so-called Thin Man design, led by the cocky Reed Akley (David Harbour), that they see as the slam dunk. Winter believes his “implosion” idea could take several weeks off the build time, but his team are considered a group of scientific misfits, while Ackley’s group are straight-laced worker bees in suit jackets.

Given the secrecy of the project, none of the scientists are able to tell anyone, even their wives, about it. This wears on Frank to the point that he pours his heart out to his Spanish-speaking maid. Frank’s wife Liza (Olivia Williams) is a rarity among the Los Alamos wives, in that she is a scientist in her own right, with a PhD in botany, she is intelligent and curious; military bureaucrats are determined to keep her from learning what her husband and the others are doing. Not following the strict rules to a T is unacceptable. The government is quick to investigate any infractions—and punish—with or without evidence—anyone who leaks secrets. Richard Schiff, doing his best work since his days as Toby Zeigler on The West Wing, recurs as Occam, whose sole purpose seems to be to sit in a bunker of sorts and interrogate anyone with supposed ties to the enemy. Things get particularly tense when one of Sid’s team members, Sid Liao (Eddie Shin), is accused of selling his research. Frank is faced with an impossible choice, his man, or the project?

While Frank and his wife are the emotional anchor of Manhattan, much of the first season is season through the eyes of Jewish newcomer Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), who initially has little idea what he’s getting himself into. Assigned to Akley’s team, Charlie locks horns almost immediately with Frank; his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) from a wealthy Boston family, struggles to fit in with the other bored housewives. Ultimately, she takes a job as a phone operator, where she learns to forget most of what she hears.

Manhattan tries to deal with a lot of issues at one time, which can occasionally feel like sensory overload, but for the most part, the series has done a great job of creating interesting characters to play out what was one of the biggest events in American history. The cast is large, yet compelling, with Zukerman a real standout as Isaacs. Yes, he’s a genius, but he’s also an idealistic kid who makes several stupid decisions throughout the season, some, largely because of ego. John Benjamin Hickey’s performance is a mannered, yet fascinated one; you get the sense that a lot of anger is boiling just below the surface and sometimes, it takes everything he has to keep it together. Olivia Williams does great work as Liza, a woman who is conflicted about her husbands “work” (which like most of the wives, she doesn’t know a lot about). Daniel Stern is a wonderful surprise as an older scientist who was Winter’s mentor and acts as his cheerleader until he finds himself at odds with the younger man.

As history, Manhattan should be taken as a grain of salt. However, as entertainment, the characters are fascinating and well developed. As soap opera, it offers lots of twists and turns and the era in which it was set might fill the hole left by the ending of Mad Men for some fans.

Presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Lionsgate’s 1080p presentation is very good. While the interiors are largely dark and ramshackle, exteriors are quite stunning. There are a lot of brown tones throughout, yet detail remains strong. Some sequences have clearly been color graded, with some outdoor shots appearing slightly desaturated. Issues with compression artifacts or DNR are not apparent.

Manhattan‘s lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn’t particularly outstanding, but it does the job. Though the surround sound is somewhat inconsistent, the dusty environs in which the characters live, is brought to life with impressive sonics. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, though fidelity is decidedly restrained.

English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

Disc One:

  • You Always Hurt the One You Love: Audio Commentary with Thomas Schlamme and Sam Shaw.

Disc Two:

  • The Second Coming: Audio Commentary with Daniel Stern and Dustin Thomason.
  • Ground Zero: Bringing the Bomb to the Screen (HD, 14:45) A typical EPK, with interviews and scenes from the series.
  • P.O. Box 1663: Creating a City That Didn’t Exist (HD, 10:09) A look at the series’ impressive production design.

Disc Three:

  • Perestroika: Audio Commentary with Thomas Schlamme and Sam Shaw.
  • “Now I Am Become Death”: J. Robert Oppenheimer (HD, 9:57) A brief overview of this iconic character.
  • Recreating an Era: Manhattan Costume Design (HD, 10:01) A companion piece to Disc Two’s featurette on production design.
  • UV Copy.