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Amazon's The Man in the High Castle struggles to meet high expectations with its post-World War II occupations


He’s seen fire, he’s seen reign. Rufus Sewell plays occupying Nazi commander John Smith in The Man in the High Castle. Amazon photo

Premiering: All 10 episodes begin streaming Friday, Nov. 20th on Amazon Prime
Starring: Luke Kleintank, Alexa Davalos, Rufus Sewell, Rupert Evans, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Joel de la Fuente, DJ Qualls
Produced by: Frank Spotnitz, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, David Semel, Stewart Mackinnon, Christian Baute, Isa Dick Hackett, Christopher Tricarico, Jace Richdale, Richard Heus

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It’s been 28 TV seasons since the United States last knuckled under to an occupying foreign power.

That came to pass in ABC’s Amerika, a 14-and-a-half-hour miniseries in which the Soviet Union made life very miserable for the likes of a previously incarcerated freedom fighter played by a monotonic and virtually expressionless Kris Kristofferson.

Amerika wasn’t the big hit ABC expected it to be, so any plans for a sequel were abandoned. Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle, which begins streaming its entire 10-episode first season on Friday, Nov. 20th, in effect picks up the Amerika baton and strives to run with it. But although impressively filmic and suitably ambitious, it congeals too often during the six episodes made available for review. There’s a lot of murkiness, too, with an abundance of detours taken from the same-named 1963 Philip K. Dick novel on which it’s based.

High Castle misstepped twice before Amazon stepped in. In 2010, the BBC announced a four-part version that never materialized. The Syfy channel got involved three years later, but its planned miniseries also was aborted. Co-executive producer Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) has been aboard all along and Frank Spotnitz, a key collaborator on The X-Files, joined him during the Syfy false-start. Both have impressive track records, so perhaps High Castle can still sort itself out. Episode 6 provides some promise of that with its emphasis on intimate, meaningful character development after too many smallish plot twists amid an overall sluggish pace.

The year is 1962, with the U.S. divided into The Greater Nazi Reich, the Japanese Pacific States and a rather cockamamie “Neutral Zone” dividing these two occupied territories. A good part of the first six hours end up stuck in Neutral, where handsome young East Coaster Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) crosses paths with pretty young West Coaster Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos). Both are hiding something, with Joe arriving via a semi-truck that he’s driven from New York while Juliana debarks from a bus trip that began in San Francisco.

Don’t expect much of a backstory as to how Germany and Japan somehow “won” World War II before establishing an uneasy alliance in the U.S. It’s uneasy because an elderly, Parkinson’s Disease-afflicted Adolf Hitler (seen fleetingly in photos and TV coverage) appears to be nearing death. In this particular alternate universe, Hitler champions a peaceful co-existence between the two occupying powers while more ruthlessly inclined Nazis wait in the wings to succeed him and then stamp out the Japanese.

Meanwhile in the Greater Nazi Reich, uniformed commander John Smith (Rufus Sewell) is an authoritarian torture-meister/family man whose orders must be followed or else. In the Japanese Pacific States, the arguably even more sinister Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) will stop at nothing to get information out of recalcitrant captives. Episode 2 finds factory worker Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) at his mercy. Frank’s also the boyfriend of Juliana, whose sudden disappearance serves to put him in this mess.

Clashing with Inspector Kido is elderly Japanese trade minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who glares a lot but also displays some compassion. There’s also Frank’s fellow factor worker friend Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls), a stock supporting character whose services aren’t really needed but too often are deployed. Meanwhile, a sneering, toothpick-sucking bounty hunter known as “The Marshal” (Burn Gorman) manages to enliven matters in the Neutral Zone while also coming off as more than a little too cartoonish.

As for the mysterious title character, well, don’t expect to see him anytime soon, if ever. Is he the maker of contraband newsreels -- “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” -- that show the Allies in fact winning World War II? Perhaps he’s just the conduit to which all these films must be delivered in hopes of someday turning the tables on the Nazis and Japanese. Then again, might he be a myth who doesn’t really exist? Or maybe he’s The Walrus. Viewers will be no closer to the answer after Hour 6 than they are from the very start.

High Castle’s strongest character, Sewell’s John Smith, is an interesting blend of evil-doing and stern but sometimes civil mentoring of young minions, including his teenage son. But Joe and Juliana make for a rather tedious twosome during their extended time together in the Neutral Zone. His motives are less than pure. But even after they’re revealed, Joe isn’t much to hang one’s hat on in terms of a story-driving central character.

No one expects any big belly laughs from such an enterprise. Still, the cheerlessness begins to take a toll, with the combined angst of Juliana and Frank building throughout the first six episodes while the big picture storytelling suffers in comparison.

Amazon Prime takes a big swing here, and doesn’t entirely miss. More was anticipated, though, with High Castle so far tending to buckle under the weight of some very heavy ambitions and expectations.


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