Amazon Instant Video debuted pilots for more than a dozen new streaming series Thursday, Jan. 15, including the filmed-in-Seattle drama “The Man in the High Castle,” based on the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel that posits an alternate history where the Allies lost World War II.
Written by Frank Spotnitz (“The X-Files,” “Hunted”) and directed by David Semel (“American Dreams,” “House”), the 60-minute pilot episode looks fantastic and sets up a serialized, ongoing story, but it is all setup; how the show might deliver on its promise in the future remains to be seen.
“The Man in the High Castle” immediately grabs you with one of the more evocative opening credits sequences in recent memory: “Edelweiss” plays as a film projector shines World War II newsreel footage on American landmarks, Nazi and Japanese imagery flashes over a map of a divided America, and a Concorde is shown with a Nazi swastika on its tail. It’s haunting and captivating.
The “Man in the High Castle” pilot introduces the notion that the Germans dropped a hydrogen bomb on Washington, D.C., ending World War II with a Germany-Japan win. The victors split up the U.S.A. with Germany taking the Eastern half, Japan occupying the West Coast and the Rocky Mountains filling a neutral zone in between.
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In New York, part of the Greater Nazi Reich, 27-year-old Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank, “Bones”) joins the resistance and gets tasked with driving a truck full of who-knows-what west to Canon City, Colo.
In San Francisco, part of the Japanese Pacific States, Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos, “Clash of the Titans”) gets involved in the show’s skulduggery somewhat inadvertently, learning about the rumored Man in the High Castle who leads the resistance. Her involvement dismays her boyfriend, Frank (Rupert Evans, “Rogue”), who wants to do nothing that might attract the authorities due to his ethnic heritage.
Actor D.J. Qualls, who also has a role in Syfy’s filmed-in-Spokane “Z Nation,” plays a Hitler-hating friend of Frank’s, who suspects Hitler is dying from Parkinson’s disease based on news footage.
The show also peeks in on German and Japanese bureaucrats as they prepare for a Hitler-less future amid worries that a change in leadership could ignite a war between the two world powers for control of all of the former United States.
The pilot’s production design is grand with remarkable attention to detail, from Hitler billboards in Times Square to the early 1960s apartment of Juliana’s parents.
The period dialogue feels mostly authentic with only the occasional clunker. (“Nothing could keep you down for long, Jules, not even a bus,” Frank says in a rare moment of ham-fisted exposition.) But Juliana’s motivations and reactions are somewhat problematic, especially her reaction to a tragedy and how she shares the news with Frank.
Amazon is following its past approach of releasing its pilots at Amazon.com/AIV — you don’t have to be an Amazon Prime customer to view them — and then soliciting viewer feedback on which shows should be turned into series for Amazon Prime. It’s unclear how much that feedback plays into Amazon’s decisions, nor is it clear if a “Man in the High Castle” series would return to Seattle to film or decamp for Vancouver.
In the pilot, Seattle and nearby environs never play the Pacific Northwest, instead serving as stand-ins for New York, San Francisco and Canon City, Colo. But some local locations are recognizable, including what appears to be the Seattle Monorail, Paramount Theatre and Union Station re-dressed to suit the period and plot.
The pilot ends with a Big Reveal that may or may not be reversed in the series, which will presumably continue the pursuit of the Man in the High Castle as the resistance organizes (shades of the original 1980s “V” miniseries) and politicians scheme to succeed Hitler. The pilot serves as an intriguing prologue; we’ll see if “The Man in the High Castle” gets the chance to become a bingeworthy series.
Freelance writer Rob Owen: RobOwenTV@gmail.com or on Facebook and Twitter as RobOwenTV.