Today Amazon is releasing its first wave of pilots for 2015. It’s an interesting assortment of projects from people as prominent as Ridley Scott and Shield producer Shawn Ryan. However, this time around “interesting” doesn’t necessarily translate into “good”—in fact, there’s only really one pilot that’s must-see viewing: The Man in the High Castle.
As with Amazon’s previous endeavors into original content, this latest batch of pilots is being delivered via Amazon Instant Video en masse so that people can tell the company which show ought to get a full season. And while the new crop boasts a Civil War drama from Carlton Cuse (Point of Honor) and comedies starring Breaking Bad and 30 Rock alums (Cocked and Salem Rogers, respectively), The Man in the High Castle is the one most poised to be this year’s (now Golden Globe-winning) Transparent.
The Man in the High Castle, adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel of same name and executive produced by Scott, goes back to 1962 to see what America would look like had the Allies lost World War II. In this alternate universe the United States has been split three ways: the Nazi-controlled east coast, renamed the Greater Reich, the Japanese “Pacific States” on the west coast, and the “neutral zone” in the center of the country.
Written by X-Files veteran Frank Spotnitz and directed by Heroes’ David Semel, The Man in the High Castle manages to evoke a suitably unsettling tone while also introducing a large cast of characters in a way that, while not perfect, makes it easy to follow their storylines and make the last-minute cliffhanger have suitable weight. (Don’t worry, that’s not spoiling anything.) It’s so good you might even forgive Scott for Exodus: Gods and Kings.
The show succeeds not only through the strength of its high concept, but also through its execution of it. It’s the kind of show that’s just familiar enough—World War II-themed dramas are hardly rare—that it’s easy to get into, but also a unique enough so as not to feel trite or old hat. Even if you have seen nearly every “America in the 1960s” show out there, along with every take on WWII, The Man in the High Castle is a compelling enough—and character-rich enough—alternate version of that time to make you want to see where this thing is going.
There are problems—there’s some dodgy CGI in the opening sequence that pulls you into the uncanny valley just as the show is trying to introduce Nazi New York for the first time—but there’s also an integrity and understated quality that reads like confidence, like this show knows what it is. It’s an assured stride compared to Amazon’s other pilots, which feel desperate for love or attention at times.
Moreover, of those seven new shows The Man in the High Castle is the one most easily imaginable as an actual series, the only one where you want the next episode immediately after finishing the pilot. To put a finer point on it, it’s the only one you’re instantly ready to binge-watch. When you’re talking about shows designed for Amazon’s platform, that feels like an important distinction to make. If Amazon wants to find something to stand alongside Transparent, or to possibly be its House of Cards, this is the show to push forward.