03 January 2016

The Man in the High Castle (TV Series Review)

For the past four years, my parents and I have brought in the New Year with a jigsaw puzzle and some American history documentaries.  One year we watched (listened to, really) Ken Burns's Civil War, another year the American Experience series on the Presidents.  Last year we did The Rockefellers and The Art of the Steal, followed up by a foray into drama with the BBC's Broadchurch.  The job of choosing viewing material is usually deputed to me, and this year I was at a loss for quality documentaries to watch, so I decided to suggest the Amazon produced TV drama The Man in the High Castle, which is loosely based on a novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick.

The show opens on a false note with a faux German performance of Rogers and Hammerstein's Edelweiss.  Aside from the fact that Edelweiss is extremely cheesy and was written by R & H as an anti-Fascist song, the worst thing about the song is that the singer, director, etc. seem to have been under the impression that Germans can't pronounce the letter "s", but only "sh".

The result is a painful track — which is sung at the opening of every single episode — in which a woman lisps "bloshom of shnow may you bloom and grow ... Edelweisch, Edelweisch, blesh my homeland forever".  Given that the show is largely a conjectural alternative history about Nazis in the US, the fact that this very basic level of familiarity with the German language was missing did not encourage my hopes for the show's writing quality on the whole.

And indeed, the Germans shown in The Man in the High Castle are basically a pastiche of Nazi clichés.  The writers stick in as much heel-clicking, "Sieg Heil"-ing, euthanasia, antisemitism, "entartete Kunst", "Arbeit macht frei", etc. as they possibly can, without any subtlety or interest in the question of how the Third Reich might have developed during the years from 1933 to 1962 (when the show begins).  On the West Coast, where the Japanese have taken over, the caricature is much along the same lines.  Apparently Japanese culture consists of Emperor worship, Aikido, committing Seppuku (so much Seppuku!), racism, "Wu", and the I Ching (so much I Ching!).

The Man in the High Castle focuses immediately on two people in their late twenties, each being landed with a mission to carry illicit film reels into the non-occupied "neutral zone" (basically the Western Plains and the Rockies) in service of the "Resistance", who will eventually deliver them to "The Man in the High Castle".  Sounds like a great set-up for an adventure story, right?  Not so fast.

The biggest fault of the show is its plot pacing.  Many readers of this blog are probably familiar with the famous paradox of Zeno, according to which it is impossible to cross a room: in order to cross the room, first you would have to cross half the room, then half the remaining distance, then half the distance still remaining, etc.  And, because any distance can be subdivided into an infinite number of parts, and an infinite series can never be completed, it is impossible to cross the room.

The Man in the High Castle feels like it was written by a disciple of Zeno.  As mentioned, the show begins with two characters trying to carry illicit film reels into the "neutral zone".  This plot point invites several basic questions: (1) Why are these film reels so important?  (2) What happens to the film reels once they get to their destination?  (3) What is the "Resistance" trying to do? (4) Who is "The Man in the High Castle?"

Believe it or not, despite being shown several films at different points in the first season, by the end of the tenth (and, for now, final) episode we still have no idea what the point of the films is.  Not only do we not know, apparently no one knows what the point is, because no indication is given that anyone has any clue why they're important or who they're important to. ("The Man in the High Castle"!  Who is...?)

In fact, none of the questions are answered, at all, through the entire first season.  None of them.  Instead, we are given an array of subsidiary distractions: The boyfriend of a protagonist is Jewish and his family gets into trouble.  The Japanese trade minister is trying to trade nuclear secrets with the Germans.  The SS group leader (ostentatiously referred to as Obergrüppenführer about five times a minute, or so it feels) who recruited one of the protagonists is almost assassinated, and finds out that his son has a degenerative nervous disorder.  The Jewish boyfriend almost tries to assassinate the Japanese crown prince, but doesn't, but is wanted for it anyway.  Etc. etc.  Meanwhile none of this tells us anything about the basic questions listed above.  Why should we care about the anticipated euthanization of the Obergrüppenführer's son?  What does that have to do with anything?

So, to return to Zeno, season one of The Man in the High Castle is like trying to cross a room.  At the beginning, after the first step, we point over to the opposite wall and say "Hey! I'd like to go there."  Then, a smaller step is taken.  And, the more steps we take, the more pointless subdivisions are inserted to slow the progress of the plot — token demonstrations of fascist evilness, antisemitism, emotional upsets, random characters who are somehow planning something or are concerned — so that, by the time we run through our ten episode season, we've thrown up our hands and said, "Gosh, I guess it was impossible to get to that initial goal after all!"

Fans of Lost know that this sort of delayed gratification can be enjoyable.  But Lost got away with the perpetually deferred plot resolution on account of two factors: (1) the huge question mark hovering over the basic premise of the show (was everyone dead? were they on a magical floating island? was it all a corporate conspiracy?), and (2) the engaging character drama, with mini-storylines introduced and resolved by way of flashbacks.  The Man in the High Castle has neither. (1) The writers hit us over the head ever thirty seconds with a reminder that the Axis won WWII and that's the whole idea here; (2) the characters are (almost without exception) bland young people whose situation in life could be amply summarized in two or three sentences each.

The worst thing, the absolute worst thing about the show, is a hint, given in the last episode, that really this isn't an alternative history drama, really it's some sort of inter-dimensional crossover sci-fi series.  Suddenly we're seeing the protagonists executing each other in newsreel footage, and the Japanese trade minister uses his meditation-powers to cross over into a different version of 1962.  To any viewers who actually wanted to know what was going on with the films at the beginning of the first episode, these revelations are mind-blowingly obnoxious, because they simply introduce another cascade of complications and unanswered questions, which now we will have to wait through another ten episode season simply to discover that the writers aren't going to resolve for us anyway.

Could the show redeem itself in the second season?  Maybe.  Will it?  I doubt it.  Given the flat characters, the poor story structure, and the habit of leaving basic questions about the plot and background perpetually unaddressed, as long as the same people are making the second season, I expect more of the same.

Of course, it's still watchable as background noise while you work on a jigsaw puzzle.