Hidden in Plain View: “The Man in the High Castle”
Hidden in Plain View is a bi-weekly column where I help you find great shows buried in the clutter that is modern television. With more than 400 original scripted series on TV in 2015 alone (and even more expected this year), it is simply a fact that you’re missing out on something great. Archive of previous columns here. This time: “The Man in the High Castle.”
If anyone can spawn a good thought experiment, it’s Hitler.
Last October, the New York Times Magazine asked, “If you could go back and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it?”
Many people responded, and the question blew up on Twitter, causing countless numbers of think pieces and stupid jokes.
Well, here’s a bigger-picture, Hitler-based question for you: What if the Axis Powers had won World War II?
Amazon’s original series “The Man in the High Castle,” released in November, takes place in this exact world. It’s 1962. Japan controls the west coast of the former United States of America. Nazi Germany controls the east coast.
Think of the sandbox this show can play around in. How would mid-20th century New York look under the rule of a fascist dictator? How long can the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany successfully rule America before butting heads with each other? What happens when you try to exterminate all Jewish-Americans? Does the general population just lie down?
The 10-episode first season – based off of a 1963 novel by Philip K. Dick – isn’t great, but there are so many captivating and fascinating elements in the world of the show that it’s hard not to keep watching (and hoping).
And that’s just the thing. I want to explore this setting. “The Man in the High Castle” does an expert job creating a believable and interesting world. Despite what appeared to be some ups and downs in the production budget – particularly during the pilot – the show’s 1962 Axis America feels lived-in and realistic throughout the series. “The Man in the High Castle” builds its world the same way the best science fiction does. By giving the audience characters to help ground us and answering questions about the setting on the margins, little by little. Everything you need to know about the world is parsed out, piece by piece.
For example, in one of the season’s later episodes, a character casually mentions something about the time that Germany conquered the African continent. No time is spent on it, and it isn’t expounded upon, but it hints at a history and world that might have existed following the war.
Let me be clear: “The Man in the High Castle” is far from a perfect show. The lead male character is uninteresting and inaccessible, the lead female character makes wildly inconsistently and sometimes incredibly stupidly decisions throughout, great amounts of time are spent on inconsequential or ineffective stories, and the primary relationship (no spoilers, I promise) that the season’s most important moments hinge on is not something I bought into in any way whatsoever. Of the shows I’ve written about in this space, “The Man in the High Castle” is probably my least favorite. But it might also be the one I am most excited for going forward. The concept and world is so compelling that it gives me a lot of hope.
Take the show’s greatest creation, Obergruppenführer John Smith.* Played by English actor Rufus Sewell, the SS commander is a loyal Nazi when we meet him, generally cruel to underlings (and often bad-ass!) by day and imparting his wise, patriotic values to his children by night. He finds justification for every action in loyalty to his country and in defense of protecting his family’s way of life. Sewell plays him with just the right mix of subtle intelligence, anger, naiveté and dispassion, making Smith not just the show’s most entertaining character but its most complex and compelling one. There were moments when I stepped back and thought, Wow, Am I actually rooting for a Nazi right now? He’s that good.
*You’ll have to get over the names. The main cast includes characters named Joe Blake, Frank Frink, Ed McCarthy and John Smith. Can’t win ‘em all.
It goes to show that when you have a world as interesting as this one, you can get away with having just one or two great characters.
Now, I’m not saying that twisting history around is the single best option for making an interesting television show. I’m saying this: Focus on the world first. Make sure it is fully realized, that it’s a place viewers can go visit and feel like they know. All of my favorite television shows have strong senses of place. If a setting feels real, it’s more likely I’ll be willing to spend hours and hours sitting in front of my television watching. Good writers can fix characters later. If you botch a setting, you’re screwed.
“The Man in the High Castle” is still a long way from greatness. But with some honest analysis in the offseason, a few adjustments could have it quickly on its way.
The first season of “The Man in the High Castle” (10 episodes) is streaming now on Amazon Prime. The show was renewed for a second season, expected to be released in late 2016 or early 2017. Check it out, and let us know what you think.