'The Man in the High Castle' Pilot Soars Above Amazon's New Season

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Saturday January 31, 2015

Earlier this month, Amazon Studios revealed its lineup for the website giant's first plot season of the year: a sudden death match between a handful of original programs where viewers vote, and supposedly decide, on the shows' fates. About a year ago, Amazon's "Transparent," about an L.A. family learning and understanding their father (Jeffrey Tambor) is transitioning to a woman, was in the mix and after being green-lit Amazon, it went on to win two Golden Globe Awards (Best Comedy TV Series and Best Actor in a TV Series).

This time around, however, the crop isn't too strong. A good chunk of the shows are for children (nearly half actually) and many others simply look terrible. But there is one show that is a clear cut "winner," not only in quality but also with viewers: "The Man in the High Castle," which currently has a five-out-of-five star rating with more than 6,700 votes. By Amazon's process, it will most likely be picked up as a regular series, as it's easily the most promising show of the bunch, but as of this writing, Amazon execs are still deciding.

But the show, executively produced by director Ridley Scott, wasn't always intended to air on Amazon Prime. It's been in development since 2010 and was initially supposed to be a four-part special on BBC. A few years later, however, it was reported that SyFy picked up "The Man in the High Castle" as a four-part miniseries - but it never materialized. It wasn't until October 2014 when Amazon revealed it was filming the pilot for the series with Scott still producing.

The show, based on Philip K. Dick's 1962 book of the same name, is an alternate history of the world where the Axis won World War II and the world was run by Nazis. The pilot for "The Man in the High Castle" is a grim story that packs a lot into an hour. Though the acting is ridged at times, it doesn't detract from the episode's sleek, olive green bleak look or its chilling central idea of how things could have gone horrible wrong had we lost the war. Apparently in this world, the United States is split into three parts: Nazi Germany controls the eastern U.S. while Japan has control of everything west of the Rocky Mountains. There's also a neutral zone that splits the tow sides called the Rocky Mountain States.

"The Man in the High Castle" takes place in 1962 and the show's pilot flips back-and-forth between two main storylines: Plot A follows Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) - an all American guy who is the newest recruit of a secret American resistance group in Nazi Germany's New York City and he's instructed to transport cargo containing a secret film Rocky Mountain States. Plot B follows Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a young but strong woman who lives in San Francisco, which is controlled by Japan.

Without going into spoiler territory, she also obtains a film called "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy," which shows the U.S. winning WWII but she's told it's fake and created by someone known as "The Man in the High Castle." Juliana and Joe end up fleeing their respective sides of the country to the Rocky Mountain States where (possibly) fate has Joe and Juliana meet.

Meanwhile, Japan's government officials learn that Adolf Hitler is very ill, though he's trying to hide it (in one scene an old Hitler keeps his right hand in his pocket during a televised event so viewers don't see his hand shaking due to possibly having Parkinson's disease). They worry that whoever assumes Hitler's role as leader after he dies, or is forced to step down, will be more ruthless and will flatten the West Coast with a hydrogen bomb to take total control of the United States.

The end of "Pilot hits you hit with a big, game-changing twist - only leaving you wanting Amazon Studios to get cracking and churn out the rest of the series.

Though the pilot moves a bit slow, the broad strokes of the show are gripping and grim. There are constant reminders throughout the pilot that help you settle into this new reality -- Times Square is plastered with swastikas, San Fran has been transformed into a quasi Tokyo marketplace where venders only accept yen.

If "The Man in the High Castle" is going to exist on TV, 2015 is the right time to do so. Audiences are craving dystopian stories and AMC's mega-hit "The Walking Dead" is a testament to that; so much so that a spin-off series is coming to TV later this year. But what separates "The Man in the High Castle" from "The Walking Dead" is that this story could have actually been a reality and that it is centered around crushing mystery: we have little information to go on and though the Axis powers clearly won the war (as they have power and control of the U.S.), if the "Man in the High Castle's" films are true, then - what happened?

You can watch the pilot episode of "The Man in the High Castle" in full below: