I don’t watch many TV shows—mainly because I despise having to wait weeks or months to receive one more incomplete piece of a full narrative, but also because few shows grab me enough to warrant a 20-plus hour investment. On the other hand, the long-form narrative and potential for development over an extensive period of time has obvious benefits, exemplified by series like Six Feet Under. Netflix has attempted to embrace the pros of television while abandoning the cons, and thus led the way for a new incarnation that lacks cable’s restraints in content and scheduling.
Amazon has been catching up to Netflix with its Prime service, and recently aired some pilots to see what audiences might find the most interesting. One inspired choice was to adapt The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick, whose works are no strangers to film (see: Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly). After all, Dick is a master of sci-fi world building, although his characters aren’t usually as well-developed. So, writer Frank Spotnitz and director David Semel have the opportunity to explore the world, mine the themes, and expand upon the human element of Dick’s novel.
If The Man in the High Castle‘s pilot is any indication, Spotnitz and Semel aim to take full advantage of the opportunities granted to them by Amazon’s model and the source material. Pilots are usually middling, and at best indicate the potential for a series without reflecting the quality you hope to see throughout. The Man in the High Castle, however, immediately dives into its concept and characters. Most wisely, Spotnitz doesn’t hold secrets of this alternate universe over the viewer’s head to fabricate interest; instead, we know immediately that this is an alternate Earth in 1962 where the Axis powers won World War II. The scenario is clear and inherently intriguing, but there are still several questions to maintain that intrigue. There’s a balance between satisfaction and anticipation.
The utilization of balance describes several of the pilot’s strengths. The characters, for instance, represent one of the most delicate balances for a television show (and fiction in general): on one side, what we know about these people, and on the other, what we will learn. While all of the characters capture the complexity of people who live in a conquered land—a double life they are forced to live wherein their true beliefs and desires must be masked by an allegiance to the men with guns—we instantly understand their personal stakes and roles in this foreign world. Their motivations are immediately clear, and we understand them through their actions. In contrast to Dick’s plain characterization, Juliana Crain, Joe Blake, Frank Frink, Nobusuke Tagomi, and even Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith are fleshed out, distinct, and interesting. Such concise writing is hard enough in movies and shows that follow a single protagonist; the fact that Spotnitz and Semel establish it in each characters’ first scene attests to their skill.
Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) might be the best example of this. Our first experience with her is at an Aikido dojo, where she defeats a fellow student several times her size. She has clearly integrated into an alternate United States where Japan controls the west coast. However, when she sees a treasonous loved one get gunned down by the military police, her personal stake in the conflict escalates. She realizes that her murdered relative gave her film that depicts an alternate U.S. where the Allies win, which provides a sense of hope that Juliana lost years ago. Often, when a hapless character makes early steps into a resistance group, their motivations are either non-existent or way too on the nose. Juliana, on the other hand, is driven by something we understand and sympathize with, yet don’t feel manipulated into caring about.
Building on the characters, the collective narrative balances itself between the high-stakes tensions of a Japanese/Nazi Cold War; the woes of a resistance group; and the personal stories of each character. There is a continuity of conflict through all three of these levels, which allows Man in the High Castle‘s pilot to interweave the three without ever muddling its pace or aesthetic. Further, the alternate world is more thoroughly explored because the writer covers the politics, power struggles, and personal battles, all through the eyes of characters we care about.
With all of the quality in the narrative assets, The Man in the High Castle has two options: tell an exciting story of a world not quite like our own, or use an exciting story to further explore themes and complex questions. Fortunately, instead of taking The Walking Dead approach (or rather, an exciting version of The Walking Dead approach), The Man in the High Castle takes the more unique (high?) road. Even simple motifs, like the strained civility of having tea together, flesh out the essences of strained interpersonal relationships and the ubiquity of human power struggles.
The more interesting recurring object, though, is The Grasshoper Lies Heavy, a film that depicts an alternate 1962 where the Allies won World War II. First of all, Spotnitz has changed Grasshopper from a book—the medium in Dick’s novel—to a film, which allows for interesting metafictional commentary. Secondly, this film-within-a-film introduces questions of the nature of reality/realities, the hope-inspiring potential of fiction, and the inherently mysterious quality of the fiction-making process. The pilot introduces all the potential themes while leaving plenty of room for exploration, and not going out of its way to explain its larger questions to the audience.
If the pilot for The Man in the High Castle hints at not only the quality of its upcoming first season, but what’s to come from Amazon in general, then television will be a step closer to shaking off its image as a lesser cousin of film. With actors who are always believable, production values that match the quality of Dick’s writing, and a story that escapes lesser sci-fi/WWII stories, Man in the High Castle has the potential to be in the ranks of the best Dick adaptations, while also confidently pushing at the boundaries of a promising but often stagnant medium.