Those familiar with Philip K. Dick‘s The Man in the High Castle will no doubt remember the careful allusions to its historical fiction that start trickling out in the novel’s first few pages, not the least of which being a shopkeep talking about his favorite brand of marijuana cigarettes. Industries that were complete fantasies at the time of the novel’s publication were part of the fabric of day-to-day life in the alternate 1960s of the story, and the novel is gorged with inventive details of Dick’s imagined world where Japan and Germany won World War II, from technological advances in travel and an endless stream of imagined societal tics. And though Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, a 10-episode adaptation of Dick’s novel, brings the paranoid intrigue and political fury of this story of rebellion to vivid, engrossing life, the series often sleeps on the source material’s vibrant hash of personal nuances, to say nothing of Dick’s oft-forgotten sense of humor.
This, frankly, isn’t so surprising considering the fact that the series’ most recognizable executive producer is Ridley Scott, working with creator Frank Spotnitz, who is best known as a longtime EP for The X-Files. Scott’s reputation was built on two science fiction films, Alien and Blade Runner, the latter of which was based on Dick’s “Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?,” and though the film remains an astounding masterwork of style and philosophical contemplation, there’s no denying that it similarly tones down the sheer strangeness of Dick’s writing. So, as we begin to get introduced to the world of The Man in the High Castle, wherein Aikido expert Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) is suddenly swept up in fighting for the resistance against her Japanese overseers in San Francisco, circa 1963, there’s a clear, overt seriousness to the overall tone, an insistence on the importance of the narrative’s dramatic muster, that’s hard to take all that seriously.
That being said, as an entertainment, The Man in the High Castle is Amazon’s most assured and riveting production since Transparent, even as it is lacking for that dramedy’s grace and unforced, immediate relevancy. In detailing the life of Juliana, as well as her boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), under the thumb of the Nazis and the Japanese empire, the series evokes a convincing and humane vision of what fascism in America (or, in this case, the American territories) would really look like, just in time for Donald Trump’s presidential bid. And the series is most striking when it focuses on the odd experiences and images of this imagined world, such as when we get a glimpse into the home of John Smith (Rufus Sewell), an American Nazi higher-up, and see that his home life is as loving and ruled by parental wisdom as any random suburban household, just with a few more swastikas around the house.
There’s another strong image that comes about halfway through the first episode, when a secretive resistance fighter, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), is stopped by a Nazi officer on his way to a town in the neutral zone, between the coasts, where he is meant to deliver information to the titular head of the resistance. As he’s stopped, he notices a flurry of what looks like grey snow, which the officer quickly informs him is ash, the byproduct of mass incinerations of the diseased, handicapped, and elderly at a nearby hospital. These seemingly passive, everyday horrors clearly proliferate in the likes of Frank, Juliana, and Joe, and their personal lives are impeded with these savage acts that are, ironically, meant to make the world more civilized.
When the show pauses to take in experiences like this, The Man in the High Castle proves both unnerving and intensely fascinating, but all too often, the series locks into the familiar steps of a spy narrative, everything somehow looping back around to reiterate narrative elements, or begin building to a yet-to-be-seen plot turn or climax. The show is too dramatically dry, too interested in talking about the world Dick created, to get at Dick’s more volatile political ideas and give the full sense of his sardonic perspective. Of course, the series is under no obligation to replicate the book’s tone, but as it stands, the series just comes off as a merely satisfying spy story that rarely gets more creative than its premise. Indeed, Amazon’s latest series is quite engaging, but when it hints at the wild and insightful series that it could have been with a few more risks and a little less interest in the beats of the story, the dramatic limitations of Scott and Spotnitz’s vision become increasingly hard to ignore.
★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism