Original drama series from providers such as Netflix & Amazon are really beginning to force their way into our TV schedules. The likes of House of Cards, Lilyhammer & Transparent have signalled that subscription services are more than capable of delivering high quality original drama. With this in mind, 2015’s pilot season from Amazon contained a range of new dramas with one recognizable series name in the form of The Man In The High Castle.
Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, the story centres on alternative events in America had the Axis powers won the Second World War. One strong positive from the outset is the title sequence that expertly lays out this new world, divided in three with the Nazi Reich occupying the largest amount of territory in the eastern, central and southern states whilst the Japanese control the most Westerly states, a neutral zone around the Rocky Mountains separates the two powers.
Set in the early 1960s, the pilot is highly stylized with bold imagery from Philip K Dick’s vision of a Nazi stated America. Scenes of a florescent Times Square glowing with Hitler’s propaganda bring to life this new landscape early on in the pilot, this becomes increasingly shocking throughout as the viewer’s understanding of just what a world after an Axis victory would be like. One particular moment references a despicable act being carried out off-screen that’s on a par with the holocaust. As well as this boldness there is also a lot of subtlety to the landscape, where keen-eyed viewers will notice alternate names of cities, airports & other changes to typical Americana culture.
Producer Ridley Scott is no stranger to adapting Philip K Dick’s work and it’s clear his Blade Runner experience has been brought in to give this show every chance of success. To that end, there isn’t any doubt that the Axis’ America he has brought to life is full of intrigue and bubbling with potential. If the show is picked up for a full season run, I’d be confident in Scott’s abilities to make the setting as fascinating as it could possibly be. The real challenge in making this series successful is not in the setting but in the characters – and this is where you begin to run into trouble.
The opening episode focuses it’s efforts on two characters on opposite sides of the neutral zone. In the East, Joe Blake is a New Yorker keen on volunteering for the allied-underground, determined to continue his father’s patriotic legacy. His first assignment is to drive a truck across the country into the neutral zone where he’ll meet up with another resistance contact. Meanwhile in the Japanese occupied city of San Francisco, Julian Crain is an everyday woman who is contently adjusting to the Asian influenced state of California. Her story becomes the more entertaining of the two when she is given a film reel that illustrates highlights of Allied forces winning the war.
As far as the story goes there is enough here to keep you interested, however, the pace is slower than a tiger tank crossing a tar pit and with the episode being a full hour, any real tension is watered down and drip fed to the audience. If you’re expecting blitzkrieg entertainment then you’ll be disappointed. The real issue is with the ability of the two leading actors. Alexa Davalos and Luke Kleintank are as wooden and bland as they come. Davalos is actually quite frustrating to watch, especially when her character is witness to a heart-breaking moment yet her facial expressions are about as animated as stale bread. Moments later as she watches the mysterious reel of film that she’s uncovered, the camera focuses on her rather than on the events in the video she is watching. This was her moment to shine and for the 15-20 seconds that the camera is resting on, it looks as though she is waiting for the director to shout ‘action’ rather than ‘cut’.
When you think about the success of subscription only TV shows, the difference between success and failure is often down to the appeal of the leading actors – Lilyhammer would not be anything without Steven Van Zandt and House of Cards wouldn’t be gaining as many new subscribers for Netflix without the magnificent Kevin Spacey. Amazon is betting on the The Man In The High Castle’s setting and alternate history to draw in the ratings when it should be much more focused on the casting and character development.
All said and done, the pilot is worth a watch and I’d say a first season is worth a punt. However, should something more interesting come along, such as the upcoming Better Call Saul, you’ll soon find yourself prioritizing that over this dystopian vision of America.