One of the reasons streaming services have been so destabilizing to the television industry status quo—besides, you know, stealing viewers and buzz—is that they’ve made the standard development process look foolish. Historically, the major networks, cable channels, and premium cable channels have made shows by first ordering a pilot, an initial episode that is seen and judged. If that pilot is deemed hopeless, the show never makes it to air. If that pilot is deemed wanting, but to an acceptable degree, more episodes are ordered and the show is scheduled. The process is time-consuming and laborious. In the case of the major networks, which order dozens of pilots they don’t pick up, it is wasteful. And it’s not beloved by television creators, who would prefer to get busy making the full seasons of their shows, rather than first clearing the hurdle of the pilot.
Weighed against all of these negatives is this overwhelming positive: quality control. Before committing to an entire season of something impossible, expensive, riddled with bad actors or crazy creators, the network gets to see if the show works.
That’s the theory anyway. In reality, mediocre, expensive, badly acted, hubristically run television makes it to air all the time. Meanwhile, Netflix has done away with pilots—largely to lure talent—and while the streaming service’s programming isn’t perfect, it’s better than that of many networks still employing the pilot process. This is why straight-to-series orders have been on the rise across the industry for a couple of years now, with scattershot results. Fox ordered Gotham, a hit for the network, straight to series, for example, but it also ordered the short-lived Terra Nova and Broadchurch straight to series too. These shows don’t always work out, but it’s not like Fox’s regularly developed lineup works so much better.
If Netflix has been an advertisement for the no-pilot model, Amazon, the underdog streaming service (but otherwise overdog tech company), has been a model of the pilot’s utility. Since 2013, when Amazon Prime began showing original content, it has created a couple dozen pilots whose quality zigs more wildly than a drunk in a go-cart. Amazon has made one fantastic show (Transparent; the also great Catastrophe is made by the UK’s Channel 4, and is available on Amazon in the states), a few acceptable ones (Mozart in the Jungle, Alpha House, Betas) and a bunch of stinkers, including the dreadfully overserious Hand of God and a number of barely professional pilots that were never ordered to series, but in contravention of convention, have been made available to the public.
Every time Amazon puts up a new batch of pilots, I think of the saying about not airing one’s dirty laundry. (Z, the recent pilot starring Christina Ricci as Zelda Sayre, soon to be Fitzgerald, is more embarrassing than soiled undies, publicly displayed.) Unlike Netflix, Amazon draws attention to its hit-and-miss taste. That quality may make Amazon like every other TV-making (and TV-enjoying) entity on Earth, but it puts it at a serious disadvantage with regards to Netflix, which like Amazon is not in the ratings game, just the brand one. Netflix doesn’t air its dirty laundry (except Marco Polo), which helps it cultivate the impression that everything it touches is prestige. Amazon doesn’t have the same tony aspirations as Netflix, but it could still stand to foster the impression that Transparent was not a happy accident named Jill Soloway.
The new series The Man in the High Castle, which arrives on Friday, is a step in the right direction. It is the second best show that Amazon has ever made, which I mean both as a compliment—it’s pretty watchable!—and faint praise: It’s pretty watchable. Based on the Philip K. Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle has a gripping alt-history premise—what if Germany won the second World War?—upon which it riffs acceptably, if not virtuosically. The show is yet another entrant in the fast-growing category of TV good enough to watch and enjoy, but not quite good enough to make specific time for. These shows are the TV equivalent of the microwave burrito: tasty, but best consumed in the absence of options.
Set in 1962, The Man in the High Castle imagines an America divided between the Germans and the Japanese. The East Coast has become the Greater Third Reich, the West Coast the Japanese Pacific States, and a buffer “neutral zone” runs between them, down the spine of the Rockies, all of which is illustrated by an artful opening credit sequence. As the show begins, the fuhrer is ailing. When he dies, his successors are likely to make a move on Japan and its territories.
The Man in the High Castle takes its characters from the Dick novel, but alters and expands on them as its sees fit. Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) lives in San Francisco with her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), whose grandfather was a Jew. Juliana’s sister, a member of the resistance, appears briefly, foists upon Juliana a contraband movie reel, and vanishes. Juliana watches the movie and sees an alternate history—our history—in which the Nazis were defeated. (In Dick’s novel, this samizdat movie was a book.) The film, made by the legendary and mysterious man in the high castle, instantly politicizes Juliana, who heads off to Canon City, in the neutral zone, on a mission for the resistance. Meanwhile Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a man of confused loyalties, heads out to Canon City from New York City, also with a copy of the same film.
On paper, Juliana and Joe are the sexy face of The Man in the High Castle, attractive young people with principles involved in dangerous espionage. But so long as they are in Canon City they and their exploits are the least interesting thing about the show—you’ve seen the one about attractive young people involved in dangerous espionage before. Juliana’s overly devoted boyfriend Frank, who in the first episode seems little more than a supporting character, becomes the series’ emotional center. After Juliana leaves San Francisco, Frank is arrested and tortured by the Japanese military police. In a genuinely chilling but never graphic turn, the police try to coerce Frank by threatening his blameless sister and her two children, who are also partially Jewish, with Zyklon B. Frank is shattered and radicalized by the experience, and is soon caught up in an assassination attempt on the Japanese crown prince that reflects JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald through a funhouse mirror.
Like FX’s The Americans, The Man in the High Castle generates a frisson by getting its audience to empathize with America’s historical enemies. The Japanese Trade Minister, Mr. Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), emerges as a reasonable, kind figure because he is devoted to maintaining peace at great personal cost—peace with the Nazis.
In the show’s hierarchy of evils, the Empire of the Rising Sun is definitely less evil than the still-rapacious Reich. But slowly, The Man in the High Castle humanizes even some Nazis. Rufus Sewell plays John Smith, the ruthless SS obergruppenfuhrer who initially seems like a boilerplate brownshirt: a vicious killer with hideous beliefs and menacing bone structure. But over the first six episodes, he is humanized, every so slightly, by an old guilty conscience and a seemingly idyllic suburban family life, in which everyone waves “Sieg Heil” while they’re taking out the trash.
The Man in the High Castle is at its best when a familiar, early ’60s America peeks through the Nazi trappings. In those instances, the show implicitly, unsettlingly asks if most people wouldn’t learn to accommodate even such a hideous new world order. In it, after all, Rock Hudson is still a movie star and ambitious men commute in from the ’burbs—in their Nazi regalia. Swastikas beam from billboards in Times Square and a young man, fixing a tire on the side of the road, can ask a good Samaritan about the grey flakes falling from the sky and be informed, matter of factly, “It’s Tuesday. They burn cripples and the terminally ill at the hospital.” In eerie moments like this, the world seems broken—and Amazon seems like it just might know exactly what it’s doing.