'Manhattan' Characters' Real-Life Counterparts Are Hard To Find... Because They Don't Exist

If there’s one bummer about watching period television shows, it’s that history can be the biggest spoiler. With Manhattan , the new show about the atomic bomb, for example, we all know to some degree what’s going to happen: The project is going to be a success, and those bombs will be built. Other than that, though, Manhattan isn’t afraid to play with history a little in the service of a good story. In fact, none of the characters in Manhattan are real; they’re all fictional.

Well, that’s not exactly accurate: J. Robert Oppenheimer pops up in a few episodes (played by Daniel London), and obviously he’s a real person. But you can’t really have a television show about the invention of the atomic bomb without him, and it’s not like he’s one of the main characters that you get emotionally attached to.

Manhattan’s creative force has experience with both period television shows and alternate histories: The show is executive produced by Sam Shaw, who did Masters of Sex, and Thomas Schlamme, who worked on The West Wing and Pan Am. When they met with critics at this summer’s Television Critics Association Press Tour, they told reporters that they’d rather try to capture life in Los Alamos at the time than stay true to the historical account of who was there. “This is not going to be a ‘Great Men of History’ piece,” Shaw told Deadline.

Instead, according to Shaw, “We make painstaking efforts to be as faithful to history and science as we possibly can be, as someone who is neither an historian nor a physicist,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. “The model for us in a way is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. It’s a story that captures the emotional truth and texture of a time and place, although it’s populated with fictional characters.”

That said, Shaw and Schlamme couldn’t make everything up entirely from scratch. In addition to Oppenheimer, there has to be a little bit of historical reference in there. Scientists have noted that the work of Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), Manhattan’s main character, is close to real-life scientist Seth Neddermeyer. Neddermeyer worked on creating an implosion bomb, just like Winter does on the show.

Still, when a group at Physics Today watched the show with people who’d grown up in Los Alamos, they noted: “Although Frank Winter’s work resembles that of Seth Neddermeyer our understanding of Neddermeyer’s personality was very different from Winter’s.” (And “the sub-plot of the Chinese physicist with a sick daughter never happened,” they mention, “because there were no Chinese physicists in Los Alamos.”)

Still, others say that Shaw and Shlamme do achieve their goal of being realistic without really being accurate. World Science Festival tracked down Roy Glauber, who worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. “I was a theorist and I sat at a desk, and I had an electromechanical calculator that I punched away at,” Glauber says. “I also supervised a group of housewives who did calculations—each of which might take several pages and many days.”

Sounds like it’s much better to watch on TV, where they can add in a little more drama.

Images: WGN America (3)