When Amazon released its new pilot season yesterday, almost all buzz was about the Ridley Scott executive-produced The Man in the High Castle, based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. Would it hold up to modern storytelling? Would it be any good? Would it make a good series?
Here's the short answer to all three of those questions: yes.
The Man in the High Castle tells the story of a world where the Allied forces lost World War II. As a result, 20 years after the war, Germany and Japan have divided the U.S. into two factions. Between those factions, though, there is a small neutral zone, described mostly like the Wild West: a sort of no-man's lawless region.
The pilot episode tells the story of a man and woman brought together in the neutral zone, as they deal with a world that's possibly on the brink of World War III, as Hitler's health declines (yes, in this version of history, Hitler lives) and the German and Japanese start getting greedy.
So how does this story work as a television series?
It actually works really well, most possibly thanks to Scott's attachment to the project. At times, the alternate history feels a lot like his Blade Runner: even though it's still set in the past, it's still a future that's all too creepy and surreal. The setting makes it feel real (although it may seem ridiculous imagining a Japanese and German-occupied U.S.) with little details sprinkled throughout that leave chilling reminders of one of the greatest "what if's" in history.
From the opening musical number (an eerie German lullaby) to the presence of swastikas in Times Square, The Man in the High Castle commits to this alternate version of history. That's even present in the characters: most are too terrified to do anything remotely considered controversial for fear of the Germans or Japanese knocking on their door.
Of course, as this series deals with Americans, there is a resistance, and that involves our two main characters, who, at first, seem on the same side. And those two characters is where The Man in the High Castle slightly fails.
There's Julianna (Alexis Davalos) who witnesses her sister being murdered on the street for her involvement with the resistance. However, although this scene should convey a lot of emotion, Davalos' expression remains wooden and we never really feel that loss (perhaps that's because the sister was only a half-sister). This is possibly intentional, because of the world she lives in, but the scenes after don't feel as emotionally charged as they should.
The same goes for Joe (Luke Kleintank), who also seems emotionless through most of the pilot episode. Having said that, though, I think the end of the episode explains why.
It's easy, though, to forgive these minor flaws, as these are actors who only have one episode to really shine. Often, that's difficult, and it's hard to judge their performances based on a single episode.
However, the characters around Joe and Julianna are full of personality, and perhaps that's why the stars seem so stiff in comparison. D.J. Qualls (Supernatural, Z Nation) is vibrant as a friend of Julianna's boyfriend and Joel de la Fuente (Hemlock Grove) is terrifying as Inspector Kido. The Nazis and Japanese characters also offer up chilling performances, the kind that make you glad we actually won the war.
There are also horrifying moments that remind us of just how awful things were during World War II, at least in Europe. Several scenes show us the horrors of the Nazis, and those moments are terrifying when placed in our own country. What if those things happened here?
The Man in the High Castle shows us a world very different from our own, but close enough that it's often uncomfortable. And for that alone, this is the pilot episode to watch on Amazon.
Now all we can hope is that The Man in the High Castle eventually goes to series. This is a story that needs telling, and we need to watch it, perhaps as a reminder of how nice it is to live with the freedoms we have thanks to history turning out drastically different.