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Spring 2015 Review: The Man in the High Castle

30 Jan

The Man in the High Castle

 The problem with super high-concept pilots, and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is certainly one of those, is that they often get bogged down so heavily in exposition that whether you’re interested in going forward with the show is determined solely by how intrigued you are by the premise rather than by the quality of the characters or the writing. This is because there’s no time to develop either of those in the effort to build the general world and explain what’s going on in the future/past/alternate reality in an hour or less.

The Man in the High Castle clearly suffers from these issues. Based on the work of legendary sci-fi writer and movie-inspirer Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle takes place in the early ‘60s in an alternate reality where the Axis powers won World War II. Japan and Germany have split the U.S. Japan controls the western half and Germany the eastern half, with a relatively small neutral buffer zone in the middle known as the Neutral States. The Nazis seem the crueler of the two powers; they of course don’t allow non-whites to live and they burn cripples and the old, but the Japanese are no softies either. Naturally, a resistance movement has emerged, but it appears small and not particularly well-organized. A key organizer in New York entrusts a crucial mission to a young man he’s never met before without any indicator of trustworthiness other than his word, which appears to be a testament to just how desperate the resistance is.

 An elderly Hitler is on his last legs, and everyone is speculating who will take over, with Himmler, Goebbels, and Goring the key contenders, and many expect the new chancellor, whoever it is, to take on Japan in an epic clash once and for all, ensuring complete racial purity for the Aryan race.

The young new recruit alluded to earlier in the resistance is taking some top secret cargo to the Neutral States, where he’ll meet someone he doesn’t know to deliver what he doesn’t know he has. A woman, who is given a treasonous film that poses a world in which the Allies won by her sister right before her sister is caught by the Japanese authorities and killed, takes a bus to that same location in the Neutral States, where she’ll be looking for someone she doesn’t know. Her boyfriend, who didn’t even know where she had gone, is arrested due to her sister’s crimes. For all that world building, that’s about all we know about our characters going forward. Calling the back stories for the characters thin would be generous. It’s almost shocking the writers couldn’t get more plot out of the hour-long first episode – two characters are meeting, and that’s about it.

It’s hard to recommend The Man in the High Castle based on what I’ve seen because there just isn’t a lot. It’s best viewed as a draft-and-follow; if you’re into the concept check it out, otherwise sit back and see if it manages to get more interesting or less over the first episodes, with the latter the more likely scenario, just based on the odds.

Of course, as I say this, I’m always the person who gets intrigued easily by these high concept premises and watches a few episodes only to see the show start to fall apart because the more fundamental aspects a show needs to succeed – characters and writing were lost beneath the high concept premise. I get fooled again and again – Revolution and Under the Dome are two recent examples, but I continue to come back for more.

Will I watch it again? Of course I will. I’m a sucker for exactly these types of high concepts. Will it deliver though, and will I be watching through more than three or four episodes, I’m less sure.