Television has long ceased to be a regional form of media. One would think that Amazon Studios, a purely online broadcasting platform owned by a global company, would be conscious of the international reach of American television. One might also think that, when tasked with producing an alternate history drama in which the Axis powers win World War II, measures would be taken to be inclusive of contemporary international audiences. Or at least, not to offend them.
Unfortunately, The Man in the High Castle, a new Amazon series based loosely on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, fails to meet this simple expectation. So far, only two episodes are available (the rest of the season premieres today, November 20), but I have already found enough cultural stereotyping and inaccuracies to conclude that this alternate reality is, disappointingly, anything but realistic.
In the pilot, set in 1962, we learn that the Axis powers have won the war and subsequently divided the U.S. into the Greater Nazi Reich in the east and the Japanese Pacific States in the west, with an expansive neutral zone marked by the Rocky Mountains. The plot follows multiple main characters: Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a young volunteer for the anti-fascist Resistance tasked with transporting mysterious cargo to Canon City, Colorado; Juliana (Alexa Davalos), a woman who becomes entangled with the Resistance when she receives a prohibited film reel featuring another universe in which the Allies win; and Frank (Rupert Evans), Juliana’s boyfriend who is seized and tortured by the Japanese when she brings the reel to Canon City.
The first minutes of the pilot are as powerful as the show’s promising trailer: “Edelweiss” plays as the chilling opening theme and, for a split second, we see the American flag with its fifty stars replaced by the Nazi swastika. This is, however, immediately followed by stilted dialogue that sounds straight out of a Generation X teen movie, with addresses like “my buddies,” “punk,” “kid” (we get it, it’s the 60s), and lines like, “You heard what curiosity did to the cat?” Um, I don’t know, make it cringe?
The clumsy presentation hardly stops here. In the ensuing scene, we meet Juliana at Aikido practice, where we learn that she excels at the Japanese martial art far more than the roomful of Asian men twice her age. We also briefly encounter Doni (Michael Eber), a puppy-eyed, mixed-raced youth who first learns that Juliana has a boyfriend, then asks frantically, “Would you—would you allow me to buy you some tea?” And bam, we are left with what is either the most contrived pick-up line in all of TV or a troubling example of idol worship between the Asian man and the more accomplished white woman.
I wish I could say that this was the extent of the ethnic-racial discomfort, but things only get worse the more characters we meet. I am not familiar with German culture and cannot speak on its behalf, but representations of the Japanese are distractingly and consistently erroneous. When discussing a visit from the Japanese royal family, Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese Trade Minister, states that the room is “inappropriate.” A Nazi ambassador explains to his German colleague that this is because the furniture lacks “chi, one of the five great elements.” Chi is, in fact, the Chinese word for “air” or “energy,” frequently used to describe the aura of a space. The same character is pronounced “ki” in Japanese and not at all similar to the Japanese word “chi,” which means “earth.” Whether this linguistic mix-up was inherited from the novel, simple fact checking would have averted the resulting implication that the two cultures are interchangeable.
Tagomi also repeatedly bases many of his political decisions on I Ching, an ancient form of Chinese divination that would hardly have acted as a major tactical influence on a Cold War-era politician. (But, alas, how on earth will people find the plot believable if the Asians started relying on political theory instead of mysticism?) While many white characters mock the Japanese for their “superstitious slant-eyed crap,” audiences familiar with East Asian culture could point out that the show itself is often similarly ignorant.
All that being said, this stately production is not without its virtues. The show’s cinematography is consistently eerie, with amazing attention paid to the impressive set, and its action sequences are both surprising and adrenaline-charged (it does, after all, carry the “Ridley Scott, Executive Producer” banner). The leads are strong, particularly Evans in his sympathetic portrayal of Frank’s combination of steadfastness, fear, torn loyalties, and heartbreak.
The Man in the High Castle certainly doesn’t lack in thrills. It is certainly different from anything currently playing on television—a mixture of historical drama, sci-fi suspense, morally ambiguous romance, and political ruthlessness, with flavors of mafia violence. It is also, however, distinctly made by and for white Americans. The fascinating premise, while artistically imagined and at times appropriately unsettling, suffers from generalizations and cultural insensitivities that permeate the show with what any fictional world hopes most to avoid—inauthenticity.
The Man in the High Castle is Rated TV-MA. May contain graphic violence, adult content, and stereotyping of your culture.