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Amazon's 'High Castle' Offers A Chilling Alternate History Of Nazi Triumph

Rupert Evans plays Frank, a young man caught up in postwar drama and turmoil, in the Amazon Prime series, <em>The Man in the High Castle.</em>
Liane Hentscher
Amazon Studios
Rupert Evans plays Frank, a young man caught up in postwar drama and turmoil, in the Amazon Prime series, The Man in the High Castle.

For broadcast TV, this year's fall season has been decidedly, and disappointingly, below average, especially for drama series. But on streaming television, there's a new show — available on Amazon Prime Video in its first-season entirety on Friday — that's about to change all that.

The show is called The Man in the High Castle. It's based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, the same writer whose stories inspired the movies Blade Runner and Total Recall, and it's excellent.

The executive producers of The Man in the High Castle include Ridley Scott, who directed Blade Runner in 1982, and David W. Zucker, who, with Scott, is another of the executive producers of The Good Wife on CBS.

But the real workhorse here is Frank Spotnitz, who developed The Man in the High Castle for television and wrote the first two scripts. He was a writer and producer on The X-Files, and this is the show that, if life is fair, should make lots of people take notice.

The Man in the High Castle is Dick's alternative history story, based on a chilling hypothetical: What if the Allies had lost World War II? The action takes place on American soil in 1962, almost a generation after the war. Back when the novel was written, that was the present day. Now it's a period piece, but that somehow makes it even more evocative.

It's not the country we remember from the '60s. It has been divided up by its conquerors, with the Nazis ruling the East, the Japanese ruling the West, and a strip of desolate neutral zone around the Rocky Mountains.

Both sides of the Rockies are police states, but in different ways — and there's a resistance, an underground, working to topple the oppressive governments in charge. One of the weapons used by the resistance is a psychological one. Film canisters contain what look to be vintage newsreels, but show an alternate history that we recognize as our own: the Nazis losing, the Japanese surrendering, and America and England emerging triumphantly.

Are the films meant as cleverly staged wish fulfillments to motivate the resistance fighters? Or are they actual glimpses of some other universe, some other reality? At first, we have no idea — and it's one of the mysteries that propels this drama so intriguingly.

Many of the goose-bump-inducing moments in this new drama are visual and are startling. Picture this: In Times Square, a giant neon swastika emblazons a building. Or an American flag with the familiar colors — but instead of stars and stripes, there's a swastika where the stars used to be. Even the map of the former United States of America is disturbing to witness — much more so than those wind-up maps of opposing territories opening each episode of HBO's Game of Thrones.

The alternate-history American map in The Man in the High Castle is made even more jarring, and creepy, by the sound, and the song, that accompanies it in the opening of each episode. It's the sound of a film projector whirring into action — underscoring the importance of those illicit films — followed by the old familiar song "Edelweiss" being sung in a much more haunting performance than you're used to from The Sound of Music.

The three central characters of The Man in the High Castle are young people caught up in all the postwar drama and turmoil. Alexa Davalos plays Juliana, a woman who gets pulled into the resistance after coming into possession of one of those films. Rupert Evans plays Frank, a man whose proximity to Juliana has him targeted by the Nazis. And Luke Kleintank plays Joe Blake, a young man who, as we meet him in the opening episode, makes his way to a resistance leader and offers his services.

The Man in the High Castle accomplishes so much, where most new broadcast TV dramas these days don't even try. As a parable about war, it's as potent as The Day After or Testament, two TV productions from the '80s that imagined nuclear bombs falling on American cities. Its use of music is clever and memorable — early episodes make room for both the anti-lynching anthem "Strange Fruit" and the Japanese love song that became a No. 1 hit in the U.S. in 1963, under the insulting title "Sukiyaki." And finally, as a TV series with a captivating production design, The Man in the High Castle is as breathtakingly original as Twin Peaks and Pushing Daisies.

You have to see it to believe it. And even then, like the characters who watch the filmstrips in The Man in the High Castle, you may not believe it. But that's the point.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.