When you sit down to watch "The Man in the High Castle," which you ought to do if you're a fan of strong TV drama, you may find yourself gaping. At a time when pop culture will go to all kinds of CGI and blinking-GIF extremes to make you look, this new Amazon series grabs your eyes by reaching back to dated and taboo imagery. The minute I saw the American flag with a swastika instead of stars and the face of an elderly Adolf Hitler presiding over Times Square, I couldn't stop looking at "The Man in the High Castle," and looking hard. The starkly remixed iconography is alarming, fascinating, and, with the world currently in paroxysms of war, uprising, and revolution, all the more thought-provoking.
The series, whose first 10-episode season drops on Friday, is based on the 1962 novel by Philip K. Dick, and it portrays an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II. The story begins in 1962 in what used to be the United States but is now three distinct regions. The East Coast and some of the Midwest is the Greater Nazi Reich, the West Coast is the Japanese Pacific States, and between them is a lawless neutral zone known as the Rocky Mountain States. An organized Resistance is afoot, which drives the plot line, but most citizens have resigned themselves to the occupation and live in a state of quiet frustration. The palette of the show, too, is mostly bleak and oppressive, with crumbling brick buildings and dirty streets, the only bursts of color coming from the disturbing red, white, and black signage.
At one point, we see a rundown movie theater whose marquee reads, "CLOS_D F_REVER." In the lobby, an old poster for the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup" has the word "Semites" scrawled across it. Hollywood, which encourages audiences to dream, appears to have been shut down in the Axis powers' fight against freedom of thought.
There are a few flaws in the six episodes Amazon made available for review, but none of them undermines the depth and power of Dick's premise. Each time an English-speaking person says "Sieg Heil" and gives a Hitler salute (which is currently illegal in Germany, Austria, and other countries), the show provides yet another effective chill. At one point, in a provocative disconnect, we see Rufus Sewell's John Smith, a nasty high-ranking SS officer based in Manhattan, eating breakfast with his family in what is a classic suburban American tableau — except for, you know, the Nazi armbands.
In a way, "The Man in the High Castle" is the best episode of "The Twilight Zone" we never saw, stretched into a long-form narrative that, like so many of Rod Serling's science fiction tales, has the power to suggest what could have been. With hate factions still thriving and, in some cases, gaining political footing, "The Man in the High Castle" also nods toward what could be.
The central story line revolves around Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a martial-arts lover who lives in San Francisco with her boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), a jewelry maker forced to fashion fake old guns for Japanese collectors. Juliana's sister is part of the Resistance, and she has been charged with bringing a banned reel of film to its maker, the so-called Man in the High Castle, in the neutral zone. The film is called "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy," and it subversively reveals a different history in which the Allies won the war. Juliana becomes radicalized and sets off to deliver the reel herself, dodging the Japanese and the Nazis who are trying to eliminate all copies.
It's a nice meta touch: The show is filled with arresting and challenging visuals, and the "Grasshopper" film so feared by the Nazis and the Japanese represents the power of visuals. I'm betting it's why the show's writer-producer, Frank Spotnitz (of "The X-Files" and "Strike Back"), changed "Grasshopper" from a book in the Dick novel into a movie.
Juliana gets help from a mysterious wanderer named Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), and together they deal with a Coen brothers-esque bounty hunter, played by Burn Gorman. Meanwhile Frank, who has some Jewish heritage, faces harsh treatment by officials looking for her back in San Francisco. In Frank's plot line, by the way, there is a scene set in a Japanese government room and I challenge you not to notice and fear the air vent in the ceiling. Behind all of this Resistance drama, there is tension growing between the Nazis and the Japanese as the end of the reign of Hitler, who is ailing, quickly approaches.
The most gnawing problems with "The Man in the High Castle" have to do with the acting. Davalos plays the show's most important character, a person who is shuffling off passivity with a newfound desire for freedom. But she hardly projects the complications of such a transition, and in many scenes she seems merely dreamy, a beat behind everyone else. Also, she looks unintentionally older than Evans, who plays her boyfriend with a similar lack of depth. These two should raise the emotional stakes of the show, bring the struggles and the historical twists down to a human level. Instead they're flat and uninspiring, as if they're in a soap opera and not a nightmare.
Another problem is the story continuity, the details of which I won't go into here to avoid spoilers. But the deaths in the series seem to occur in a vacuum, perhaps because of the tyranny of a government that doesn't allow human expression, but more likely because of the sloppiness of the writing.
These shortcomings don't ruin "The Man in the High Castle," even if they prevent the drama from rising to a more rarified status. It's a compelling addition to this year's already long list of worthwhile TV shows.