My take tonight on “The Man in the High Castle” (2015) is again cheerfully redundant; I concur with all of its glowing reviews. I’d give “Season 1” a 10 out of 10, even if I hesitated over a couple of small criticisms. I was leaning toward a 9 over my quibbles, but I can’t get this hooked on a show and look forward to it so much without giving it a perfect rating.
First, it was a terrific television drama in all of the ways I was expecting — it’s an intelligently written and competently directed adaptation of what seems like a truly great science fiction classic. (No, I haven’t read Philip K. Dick’s award-winning 1962 book.) The drama is actually better than I expected.
Second, it also surprised me by being good in some unexpected ways. It’s nifty genre-buster, for one. I recommended it last night to a friend because it has some military-sci-fi elements. But it’s far more of an espionage thriller. It’s a dystopian sci-fi story, but not a futurist one; our negative utopia here exists in an alternate-history 1962. It’s a mystery, as our central plot thread involves mysterious newsreels being transported by the American resistance and sought after by the Axis counterintelligence agencies. And I suggest that the episodes taking place in “the Neutral Zone” (a kind of “no man’s land” between the eastern Nazi territory and the Japanese-annexed East Coast) work just fine as a horror-thriller. The psychotic “bounty hunter’s” pursuit of his various quarry is easily more frightening than many psycho-killer horror films that I’ve seen via Netflix.
The “world building” here has depth. It’s easy for a dystopian-fictional work to just portray New York with Nazi symbols, statues and flags, or California streets with Japanese-language signs. But this show goes to great lengths to (quite successfully) show a range of people and how their personalities are shaped by this alternate universe.
We see heroic resistance fighters and callow American collaborators; frightening Nazis and those with regret; terrifying Imperial Japanese secret-policemen and officials trying to preserve the peace. Conflicts exist among factions and personalities everywhere — divisions and power struggles within the Nazi ranks, threats between the Imperial kempeitai and mobster yakuza, and a brewing possible war between the Axis victors of World War II.
All of this is tightly plotted, with various characters’ actions affecting the missions and safety of others — it really reminded me of Tom Clancy’s novels that way. It’s all kind of brilliant.
The acting is top-notch. Alexa Davalos (Juliana Crane) isn’t just a pretty face, she’s an extremely talented performer. So, too, are Rufus Sewell (Oppergruppenfuhrer John Smith) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Nobusuke Tagomi). All three give great performances.
Honestly, there are too many terrific things about this program to name. It’s just a damn good show.
My only complaints were forgivable. When characters drop personal mementos and those serve as clues to their identity, it’s an eye-rolling deus ex machina. This happens not once, but twice. We also learn far too little about the nature of the mysterious (and plot-driving) newsreels. The entirety of this ten-episode “Season 1” is so lacking in closure that this feels like an incomplete story arc. To make matters worse, there seems to be little information about if or when Amazon will produce another season.
Anyway … I think I spotted an Easter egg. Alexa Davalos is a dead ringer for the equally beautiful Sherilyn Fenn, who played the enigmatic Audrey Horne on “Twin Peaks” 25 years ago. When interrogated by the Kempeitai, she reports that she was looking for her sister in “her favorite places,” which include “Twin Peaks.” That … can’t be a coincidence, can it?