Amazon’s forward thinking decision to be the next content supplier along with Netflix and Hulu gave the world the Golden Globe-winning Transparent. Now, with both Netflix and Amazon being validated as outlets worthy of cranking out new stories that can be both critically acclaimed and popular, the rush to create content with high profile names outside of a cable box is now the new normal.
With this, a few new pilots have been dumped out-of-the-blue for the casual consumer on Amazon. And there’s Mad Dogs with familiar names like Michael Imperioli and Billy Zane. Some show that looks like a highly polished Civil War dramatization (we sure do need another one!). And then there’s Man in the High Castle – a joint whose most high profile association is its executive producer, Ridley Scott.
Man in the High Castle is based on Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel of the same name. The book’s central question asks what America look like had the Axis powers invaded and conquered the United States. Its adaptation is certainly one of the more ambitious ideas available. It’s a premise that calls for book-to-screen world-building on a scale that only names like Tolkien and Rowling were previously allowed. Yet, the success of Game of Thrones, as well as a swarm of Hollywood titans flocking to television, have made the creation of large alternate universes seem more like a financial afterthought than an upfront bottom line concern. And it seems like Scott’s influence bought the most expensive Axis America it could buy.
The setting for the show’s 1962 is framed through sweeping aerial and tracking shots that reveal familiar landmarks juxtaposed against the striking insignias of the occupying military forces. The Rising Sun of Japan is draped over the Golden Gate Bridge. Times Square glows blood red with a beaming neon Nazi flag. There are also the added details of more than a decade under Axis rule. A gigantic, utilitarian Nazi Embassy as well as Hirohito Airport are located in the Japanese Pacific States. An elevated U-Bahn Subway is in the New York City of the Greater Nazi Reich. Culturally, the Nazis play nothing but Wagner and Berlin-inspired “American pop” on the radio, while the Japanese have a fierce disdain for modern art. All of this makes you wonder “what if?” and draws you closer to your screen. What repels you from this whole concept is not its implausibility (it feels like it could have happened with this set design) but rather what the executive producers might have left out in lieu of all of this creation: decent writing and a good cast.
Looking at the cast, you’re forced to question “who?” upon first glance. The most recognizable out of everyone is probably DJ Qualls, which is saying a lot about the lack of star power. Stars or not though – this crew, in the pilot at least, delivers lines as if it got called upon in English class to read them. It’s almost like watching dolls float through the most opulent house built by Mattel. The actors playing the American uprising seem more interested in fucking up the whole movement and staying submissive to their invaders. Meanwhile, the players portraying the German-born Nazis act as if they were cast for the role of the beleaguered Americans who have to be loyal to the Germans. The invading forces lack any air of evil; the association to their respective historical legacies does the heavy lifting for them. These bad guys should have corporate badges to go along with their heavy accents.
It doesn’t help that most of the dialogue seems like it was conceived by fanboys of Medal of Honor and Call of Duty. Nowhere is this more evident than in the introduction of Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) and the leader of the American resistance in East New York. The leader gives Blake a once over and says, “So this is what they’re giving me these days.” You almost expect the camera to go to first person and an Xbox controller to be dropped in your hands. The meeting then gives way to more grumbling ‘you are just a kid’ tropes with a result that ends in a “hell, why not” shrug. If this were a game, you’d be given a pistol and asked to fight for your country.
On the other side of the country, a similarly simple introduction into the American resistance is given to Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos). Juliana appears to be one of the many young Americans who has quickly adapted to life under the Japanese (who are painted as much more tolerant of different cultures than their allies to the east). Her parents have their qualms about her acceptance of this due to their past experiences. In a flash, Juliana’s world turns upside down when her sister Trudy shows up out of nowhere and hands her a film reel, only to be gunned down after doing so. Juliana immediately runs home and does not even think twice about Trudy. She immediately puts on the reel and sees footage of the reality that we all know: the Allies won. Then, she thinks about Trudy and starts sobbing when her hollow significant other, Frank (Rupert Evans), inquires as to how she came across the film. Along with the reel, there is a bus ticket to Canon City, a place in the neutral zone where Joe from the XBox mission story line is heading. Frank tells Juliana she has to turn the reels in, as they are grounds for treason.
This is about thirty minutes or so after Juliana is seen defending the Japanese culture into which she has integrated. You would think she would do it. Instead, almost on a whim, she decides to carry out Trudy’s mission, whatever Trudy’s mission was. Again, this is after establishing her character has no ill will towards the Japanese and that she doesn’t seem to give even a second thought to Trudy until she’s brought up. Maybe Juliana does care about her country, but it would be nice to detail that in the exposition rather than make the viewer assume it’s her duty given that she is an American. Just like with the Japanese and the Nazis, the association of being an American does most of the work for the narrative. Yet, it doesn’t quite reconcile of how people like, for instance, the American-born state trooper who stops Joe on his journey to Canon City just does what he does despite being an American. He can easily give up his loyalty to the much less tolerant Nazis and skip town, since that’s what everyone else seems to be doing.
One subplot that pops up which is far more interesting than the jokiness of the American uprising is the realpolitik between Germany and Japan. Adolf Hitler is in bad health, with Himmler and Goebbels ready to take charge. The H-bombs that once decimated DC could be turned on the West Coast and, later, the Japanese islands. This leads to a secretive plot by two ambassadors (one Japanese and one German, of course) to ensure that the succession of Hitler by Goebbels or Himmler does not come to pass. It hints at the underlying racial tension between two nations that each thought their respective cultures and ethnicities were superior, a fact that very well could have dismantled a rush to world domination were the Axis powers ever successful in their campaigns in Europe and the Pacific. After all, the alignment of Germany and Japan was merely out of military necessity to handle the Allied forces, just as much as America/Great Britain’s pact with the Soviet Union was. It also gets closest to Dick’s final, more challenging message within the source material.
The flaws with Man in the High Castle can render it damn near unwatchable at times despite its multi-million dollar polish. Perhaps the show can find a steady audience despite the stakes feeling extraordinarily low due to the acting and the clunky writing. Hell, Boardwalk Empire found an audience despite its conflicts centering on baddies that were inserted as if they were opponents in Punch-Out!!. In an age where we can get shows that fit almost any taste on any device most assuredly confirms this. It also confirms that we are, to quote Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan from a recent Grantland podcast, in a Golden Age of Content. Man in the High Castle‘s pilot dictates that it doesn’t mean it has to be necessarily great content.