There’s every reason the new Amazon streaming series “The Man in the High Castle,” available to Amazon Prime subscribers, should be a home run. And on the surface, at least, it is.
The series, set in 1962, benefits from a fantastic high concept – in the show’s alterna-history, America lost World War II and the country was divided, with the Germans taking over the Eastern half and Japan taking over the West with a neutral zone in the Rockies – and breathtaking production values.
The production design alone, showing a Japanese-ruled San Francisco and swastikas adorning billboards in New York’s Times Square, is worth tuning in to see for the unnerving shock value. And the show’s opening credits, featuring a creepy-eerie version of “Edelweiss,” provokes chills.
If only the drama that follows was as nuanced and vibrant as the show is visually stunning. Instead, the early episodes are somewhat inert with characters that display too few real, human emotions.
In New York, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank, “Person of Interest”) agrees to deliver cargo for the resistance, driving a truck across the country to Canon City, Colo., in the neutral zone.
In San Francisco, Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos, “Angel”) sees her sister, Trudy, gunned down by Japanese soldiers just after Trudy gave Juliana a cryptic message and a package containing a reel of film footage of an America that won WWII, supposedly produced by “The Man in the High Castle.” Oddly, Juliana doesn’t seem that upset about Trudy’s death and is more interested in unraveling the mystery of the film. Juliana doesn’t even rush to tell her mother about Trudy’s death before she leaves town to fulfill Trudy’s mission, much to the chagrin of Juliana’s boyfriend, artist Frank Frink (Rupert Evans, “Rogue”).
Frank has his own unnatural reaction: After facing a tragic loss, he fails to mention it when talking to Juliana by phone. The show’s insistence on making its characters play unnaturally coy mirrors the show’s tendency to play coy with viewers about its secrets, including whose side some characters are really on and, of course, who is The Man in the High Castle?
Based on a Philip K. Dick novel published in 1962 and adapted for TV by writer Frank Spotnitz (“The X-Files,” “Crossing Lines”), “The Man in the High Castle” is at its best when offering details about how America lost World War II. There are references to the enemy coming ashore at Virginia Beach and an atom bomb being dropped on Washington, D.C.
The show also shines when the focus is on the Japanese and German characters, but it’s at its least interesting when it’s time to follow the stories of Juliana and Joe in Canon City, Colo. All the stories move at a slow pace, but the Canon City plot is like molasses.
On the Japanese side, trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, “The Last Emperor”) plots with a German counterpart for a world after Adolf Hitler, who is in poor health. Among the Germans, obergruppenfuhrer John Smith (Rufus Sewell, “Cold Comfort Farm”) is shown as both a Long Island family man and a ruthless SS commanding officer who seeks to root out the resistance.
Once Juliana and Joe go their separate ways around episode five, each of their individual plots picks up some steam.
“The Man in the High Castle” is a show that walks a fine line; it’s just intriguing enough to keep me coming back, but it doesn’t make me yearn to watch the next episode.