Should I Watch: The Man in the High Castle?

Should I Watch? is a new feature in which James will write brief, to-the-point reviews of television shows, because he watches quite a few.  Like most features on De CivitateJames will probably not have time for it over the long haul and this will end up being the only installment. For the first column, James watches Amazon’s new prestige drama, The Man in the High Castle.

Still from The Man in the High Castle’s hauntingly effective opening credits 

Type of Show: It is unfair to call The Man in the High Castle a heavily-serialized drama. Like many other shows written for the “binge-watching” audience (House of Cards &c.), it is way more serialized than that.  As a series of episodes, it is unintelligible; it can only be understood as a full, season-long story.

What It’s About: In 1947, the Nazi Reich and Japanese Empire conquered America.  Now, in 1963, Juliana Crane and Joe Blake are helping the Resistance smuggle films that depict an impossible world where the Allies won.

Where People Watch: Amazon Prime (subscription only), The Pirate Bay (illegally)

What James Watched: The entire 10-episode first season, which is all that has been released so far.

Best Part: Mad Men won a bunch of awards for its powerful, faithful evocation of the 1960s. The Man in the High Castle goes much further: it powerfully, faithfully evokes a 1960s that never happened: a 1960s America that has been quietly perverted by anti-Semitic propaganda and seppuku.  The world it creates feel real in every detail, from production design to tiny quirks of dialogue, and that world-building is entrancing. Obergruppenführer John Smith (really? that’s the name of a main character?) is singled out in most reviews as a standout, and I must agree: every regime will has its collaborators, and some of them will be true believers. Smith is fascinating.

Worst Part: The Man in the High Castle is, even at this early date, obviously joining Lost’s tradition of asking questions that it has no intention of answering.  The refusal to commit to and advance the broad story drains the show — and apparently its writers — of any sense of urgency.  The story is ten hours long, but has less character development and change in all that time than your average 90-minute B-movie. What’s there is good, but it is soooo slow in coming and involves soooo many long silent shots of people frowning that you start wishing you were watching Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, which were somehow less overextended than The Man in the High Castle.

Should I Watch?: 



The Man in the High Castle could work very well, if its first and (probable) second season were smashed together into a tightly-paced six-episode miniseries.  Watch the pilot episode for its gorgeous production values and world-building (the pilot is free on Amazon even to non-subscribers, so, bonus).  The rest of the series just isn’t worth the time it asks for, so bail out and go watch the original Red Dawn, which has far less verisimilitude but a hell of a lot more entertainment value.

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