Today Amazon releases ten episodes of The Man in the High Castle, an alternate-history drama series based on the novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick. If you’ve never heard of the novel, its premise is straightforward: What would life be like in 1962 if the Axis powers had won the Second World War? And although Amazon’s new series streamlines much of the historical detail provided by the book, it sticks more or less to the basics. After winning the war, the Nazis and Japanese have divvied up the US; or, rather, the Nazis have taken the East Coast, including New York City, and the Japanese rule the West Coast and San Francisco. Much of the middle of the United States is a buffer zone between the two.
The pilot episode of The Man in the High Castle was wildly successful. It was, it turns out, the most-watched pilot in Amazon’s short history. It’s not hard to see why. Like many adaptations of Dick’s novels, this project is ambitious yet intuitive. The alternate history premise means that the viewer’s allegiance gets twisted — she ends up rooting, at times, for the bad guys. So the viewer’s need for transgression is satisfied. Also, the premise comes prepackaged with a readymade world; however ambitious the project is, most viewers know the basic historical actors of WWII, so the show’s creators — it was co-produced by Ridley Scott’s company, and it was created and written by The X-Files’ Frank Spotnitz — aren’t starting from scratch.
If the show has a core character, it’s Juliana Crain, played sometimes with fortitude and passion and sometimes inaudibly by Alexa Davalos. Her story, at least to begin with, goes something like this: she watches as her half-sister is killed by Nazis, but not before she receives from her a curious film reel. Later, when Juliana watches the film with her boyfriend Frank — a character who is played with alienating, almost uncalled-for lugubriousness by Rupert Evans — they realize that it is an alternate history of the war, one where the Allied forces manage to win the day. The power of the film moves Juliana to fulfill her sister’s mission, to take it to Canon City, Colorado — to the buffer zone. Frank stays home and gets tortured.
In Colorado, Juliana meets the likewise beautiful Joe Blake, whose preternaturally American name should signal right away that he is a Nazi spy. The hijinks that take place in the buffer zone are too convoluted to summarize here, but it’s safe to say that it all involves a bible, a diner, and maybe (just maybe) The Man in the High Castle himself, who is said to have made the film that gives hope to the hopeless.
Meanwhile, in the Japanese-controlled Pacific States, trade official Nobusuke Tagomi is conspiring with Rudolph Wegener, a Nazi official who (we later learn) has a guilt complex over his role in the war. Layers of intrigue mount, although it’s not immediately clear what’s at the top of the pile…
Here’s what I will say about the pilot: It works. To begin with, the show’s visual design is impressive, a hybrid of hazy warm tones and popping colors that lulls you into the past and quickens your pulse. It’s a well-built world, in other words, unlike anything else on television. Not only that, Spotnitz’s decision to replace one of the novel’s central pieces, a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, with the above-mentioned film, is smart. To begin with, it doesn’t make sense to have a book as the centerpiece of a TV show. (Although something like that was done in Utopia, which I increasingly believe to be an ur-show for much of recent, decent TV.) More to the point, though, the film’s newsreel quality — for the characters watching the film reel, it is baffling evidence of an alternate history or universe where the Allies won the war — calls into question how it could ever have been made. After the first episode, I wanted answers.
But The Man in the High Castle never takes off, and the “why not” is obvious: The writing is plainly not up to par. Huge passages in the middle of episodes fall flat — the plot is literally lost. Scenes wherein the actors are at emotional full tilt — let’s say, after a rote chase that leads boringly to someone’s death — baffle the viewer. You never quite understand where the plot is moving or why everyone is so tense. The claustrophobic, paranoiac atmosphere of the novel is too often distilled into grotesque, even archetypal characters, like Burn Gorman’s bounty hunter (called The Marshal). Moments of unearned frustration boil over into tender-footed dialogue. You’ll never hear more out-of-place “fucks” in a TV show. And soon enough you’ll stop giving any.
Also, for a show with a distinctive, even sui generis visual design, The Man in the High Castle is not especially well shot. There are too many “gotcha” scenes of bodies emerging from where you’d not expect them, but not in that vintage, Rossellinian way — it’s more like a parlor trick that the directors use ad nauseum in the absence of other parlor tricks. Even worse, too, is the sound. Moments of curiously throwback, mumblecore-esque mumbling suddenly amplify. And then you’re back to the shouting “fucks.”
After finishing the first six episodes, I think I know why The Man in the High Castle goes astray. As it turns out, the show’s dispositif, its setup or apparatus, isn’t as intuitive as I’d originally supposed. Even if it makes all the sense in the world, for example, to turn Dick’s novel-within-a-novel into a film, it nonetheless makes little to no sense to oversell it as a MacGuffin. It becomes too abundantly clear, in other words, after a couple of episodes, that the promise of the pilot — that you might find the source or meaning behind this mesmerizing film, this film that “could change everything” — evaporates. And it was obviously meant to. Unfortunately, the show’s writers didn’t seem to have much of a structure in place to bolster the show once the reel lost its magical status; nor did they have the fortitude to string the viewer along, baiting her with the promise of fulfillment, like, say, Spotnitz’s The X-Files.
Fortunately, for Amazon, the writers will likely have the time and real estate needed to get The Man in the High Castle back on track. For starters, the success of the pilot is not likely to abate so drastically as to prevent a second season. More importantly, though, Dick’s novel doesn’t conclude decisively enough to suggest a hard ending for the series. In fact, he planned for a sequel to the novel — a sequel he never wrote. Still, at this point, the show weirdly mimics the role of its own MacGuffin. Right now it’s just eye candy that promises another world.