The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, is an acknowledged classic of the alternative-history genre — the sort of books that imagine a world in which something important had gone differently. (In this case, it’s if the Axis powers had won World War II.) The TV show of the same title, whose pilot is currently streaming on Amazon, is unlikely to meet as much success, not least because the alternative-history genre of TV isn’t something that exists. In general, TV has been uniquely bad at conveying dystopian fantasies. So far, The Man in the High Castle is worse than it could be — but it’s hard to call it a disappointment, given how low expectations should have been.
The power of books that imagine the apocalypse (or a far worse alternate present) is their power to parcel out information about the state of the world we’re witnessing through context. When television attempts to do the same, it feels sledgehammer-level unsubtle. In a book, a mention of a popular current movie or song, or a quick description of a poster or work of art, can be easily absorbed in the flow of information. In Amazon’s Man in the High Castle pilot, when the camera pauses on a movie theater marquee or poster of a Third Reich soldier, it feels as though we’re being nudged in the ribs: This will be important later! The important stuff that’s actually interesting gets withheld to a frustrating degree, in favor of fairly dull characters who are on quests we don’t get enough information about to care. What would it really be like to live under Nazi rule in America? We don’t get a strong sense, aside from a vague feeling that the police would be far more aggressive.
Subtlety isn’t television’s strongest trait, but shows like The Man in the High Castle, which exist in a wildly different universe than our own, only exacerbate the medium’s problems with obviousness. We want to know how America ended up overrun with German and Japanese soldiers — just as how, in Under the Dome, we want to know how the town ended up under a dome, or how in the late ABC reboot of V we wanted to know the alien’s plots. Those last two shows are but two easy examples of an irritating phenomenon: when they did parcel out information about the world in which their characters found themselves, it was heavy-handed in a way that only emphasized how much the rest of the show was wheel-spinning.
In The Man in the High Castle, the popular movies and songs of Nazi-controlled America are lingered upon, as though they’ll be important later. The mechanics of a bus trip to a free zone are straightforwardly stated by a character whose function is largely pure exposition. But the mechanics of how the Germans and Japanese conquered and then divided America are easily hopscotched over. TV can give very obvious information very quickly, through exposition. What it can only do far more effortfully and over a longer period of time is convey a complex society very different from our own. With characters as schematic as the ones in High Castle and a plot so reliant on shoulder-tapping obviousness, it’s hard to imagine tuning in for that long.
What would make the show more watchable in the long run? The twist at the end of the pilot is a good sign: Prior to that, the characters had behaved exactly as we might expect them to. The central question of this show hinges upon a collision between American and Third Reich ways of life, so giving us characters who are morally compromised or hazily in-between — rather than, as many are, firmly situated on one side or the other in an intractable war — will allow the ideas of the show to reach their potential.
Only the first episode is available, so far, which is exactly the wrong amount; those characters who are on one or the other side seem just like chess pieces waiting to play their part in the drama, thanks to how little we know. The lack of information about the most interesting aspect of High Castle, its bizarre geopolitical setting, isn’t tantalizing. It’s a reminder that the show isn’t, yet, getting down to the business of showing us what its world is really like and how it got that way.