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The Man in the High Castle season 2 is the worst TV show of the year

After losing its showrunner, Amazon’s alt-history Nazi drama has become deeply irresponsible television.

The Man in the High Castle
Rufus Sewell plays Obergruppenführer John Smith, The Man in the High Castle’s most intriguing character.
Amazon

When “Fallout,” the season two finale of Amazon’s alternate-history drama The Man in the High Castle, ended, my computer automatically began playing the show’s next “episode.”

It was a short “behind the scenes” snippet designed to be watched much earlier, after the season two premiere. In it, executive producer Dan Percival talks about said episode, just as he will for each of the nine episodes that follow.

If you’ve left any HBO Sunday night drama running post-closing credits, you’ll recognize this form: the typically empty discussion of fairly obvious character turns and thematic moments, designed to offer talking points about what you just watched.

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Percival’s post-episode musings on The Man in the High Castle are especially devoid of anything worthwhile. I watched all 10 installments, and he talked about something that wasn’t a direct recitation of plot points maybe twice. Mostly, he made sure viewers knew what they had just finished watching.

In and of themselves, these discussion segments are nothing worth getting too upset about, but they exemplify just where the second season of The Man in the High Castle went wrong, and why Amazon, thanks to largely self-inflicted wounds, remains a second-rate pretender when it comes to making quality dramas. (The superlative Transparent is produced by the company’s comedy division.) There are still good performances and strong production values, but the series is now uninterested in big ideas or themes — as emptily provocative as the promotional ads Amazon cooks up for it.

In short, a once fitfully interesting series about the perniciousness of fascism lost its showrunner — because Amazon didn’t seem to believe its biggest show even needed a showrunner — and slowly but surely devolved into plot-heavy Nazi kitsch. Season two looks gorgeous, but it’s dangerous, like a well-designed fireworks display that sets a whole city aflame.

It’s the worst TV show of 2016.

In changing showrunners, The Man in the High Castle completely lost its sharpest themes

The Man in the High Castle
Alexa Davalos plays Juliana Crane, around whom whole universes knit themselves, apparently. (Davalos is fine. It’s hard to convincingly play a cipher.)
Amazon

The first season of The Man in the High Castle was not great television. It was poky and ponderous, with a drawn-out first half that too often stranded itself against narrative shoals. It was a little boring.

But it was also fascinating conceptually, thanks to showrunner Frank Spotnitz. Spotnitz could have easily set the show in a world where the Axis won World War II, then populated that world with cartoon bad guy Nazis. Instead, he longed to examine both the seductiveness of fascism for those who would be oppressors under it and the ways that most of us are only too happy to go along with horrible things, so long as they don’t rattle our own status quo.

When you’ve grown up in any system, be it political or economic or familial, you’re too close to its flaws to truly see them. You might catch glimpses here and there, but familiarity breeds the dulled recognition that if you sink the ship, you’ll probably go down with it.

In season one, Spotnitz’s Man in the High Castle argued, repeatedly and provocatively, that if the United States were a fascist country, most of us would probably accept that fact. This idea was adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name the series uses as a loose inspiration — but to say it was accidentally timely is putting it mildly.

Spotnitz and I spoke about these themes at length in an interview I conducted with him last year; during our conversation, he also touched on how he hoped the series wouldn’t give in to simplistic science fiction questions about the nature of alternate realities and the like. And then, early in the production season two, he left the program. (He’s still credited with writing the script of the season premiere, and the show’s remaining producers say in this Variety interview that he was present through the writing of the first five of the season’s 10 episodes.) Amazon declined to replace him, believing his various lieutenants could take over, and all would be well.

That’s not at all the case. By the end of its second season, The Man in the High Castle has essentially abandoned everything fascinating about its first season in favor of a junky sci-fi drama with reality-hopping characters and a bunch of caricature Nazi bad guys.

When Spotnitz had you cautiously rooting for Hitler’s survival, because his death would unleash hungry war-mongering from his underlings, the producer understood the powder keg he was playing near. When season two hits the same note, it blithely suggests some Nazis are worse than others.

Mostly, The Man in the High Castle no longer seems interested in challenging its audience, precisely at a moment in political history when we might need to be challenged. A new character, a Japanese woman, is introduced as a fighter for the American resistance, even though she was raised in the Manzanar internment camp and has no real reason to be loyal to the former United States. It’s clear that she’s driven only by her function in the script as one of “the good guys.”

Her complexity is lost beneath the series’ insistence on having easily definable “sides,” on flattering viewers into believing they would be resistance fighters and not simply people keeping their heads down and living normal lives in the midst of evil — that they’re not, on some level, already that.

Season 2’s most prominent new storytelling device also undercuts the show’s best ideas

The Man in the High Castle
Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) investigates a strange alternate reality — ours.
Amazon

The Man in the High Castle’s first season concluded with a marvelous tease, wherein Japanese trade minister Tagomi (the wonderful Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) left behind the Japanese-occupied San Francisco of his timeline for the early ‘60s San Francisco of our timeline. Baffled by what he saw, he returns in the season two premiere, nevertheless enticed by what’s on the other side of some cosmic divider.

At first, this is sort of fun, a nifty jaunt between two realities that adds some compelling metaphysical wrinkles to the series. But the deeper season two’s story gets, and the more time Tagomi spends in our reality (to which he eventually moves for a while so that he can spend time with his wife and son, who are dead in Japanese-occupied San Francisco), the more the series seems almost to use this timeline-hopping as a way to let viewers and its characters off the hook.

It’s harder to understand why fascism takes root in a society when a story is constantly contrasting it with other, less tyrannical forms of government. The Manzanar mention is a good case in point — the United States is not somehow immune to authoritarian tendencies. But in season two, The Man in the High Castle is less interested in the darker sides we all carry with us and more interested in the simple-minded idea of good and evil.

The show’s most prominent storyline in Nazi-occupied New York, for instance, involves the son of Nazi leader John Smith (Rufus Sewell). In the first season, Smith was the show’s most instantly compelling character — it was easy to see how he would have been a highly decorated American war hero in our reality but had been only too happy to collaborate with Nazis in the show’s reality. Most people are only too willing to fit into the systems they find themselves in.

In season two, however, Smith and his wife, Helen (Chelah Horsdal) learn that their son has a form of muscular dystrophy, which they are duty-bound to report to the state so their son can be executed before he becomes a “useless eater,” living off the state.

There are chilling moments here — Sewell and Horsdal are too talented to not make a meal of this storyline — but the longer it goes on, and the more the show leans into the idea of secret Nazi conspirators hoping to push Germany into war with Japan, the more it starts to feel like The Man in the High Castle is trying to take the disquieting ideas about Nazis from season one and push them back into a box that will remove them from any sort of relevance.

These ideas could be provocative, too. There’s a version of The Man in the High Castle’s story — maybe even one Spotnitz helped plot out — about how the avoidance of war is necessary at all costs once nuclear weapons enter the picture, even if it means preserving evil power structures. But it’s all flat, literal. It’s scared to engage with any complexity.

For example, the show chose, this season, to make the titular character — a strange figure who provides the Resistance with filmstrips that depict our reality (and presumably others), as well as the future of show’s reality — into an actual character in the storyline.

He’s played beautifully by Stephen Root, but now he’s just a raving kook who nonetheless has his finger on the pulse of something, not a strange genius sequestered in a figurative fortress. Making the character real robs him of some of his power. The more The Man in the High Castle digs in, the less capable it is of truly engaging with its biggest ideas.

Still, for as much as I hated season two of The Man in the High Castle, I don’t lay the blame for it at the feet of anyone who produces the show. The true culprit here is Amazon itself.

Amazon has stopped trying to make quality TV. Instead, it wants to make TV that looks like quality TV.

The Man in the High Castle
I often all but forgot Joe (Luke Kleintank) even existed while watching this season, so here’s a picture of him.
Amazon

The Man in the High Castle comes at the end of a year that underscored Amazon’s also-ran status as a creator of original TV programming. The streaming service might have developed one great series — Transparent — and imported a couple of others, but is otherwise completely clueless when it comes to what makes a good television show. Precisely when The Man in the High Castle was poised to become the most accidentally relevant show on TV, Amazon chose to focus on the dumb, shallow version of it.

Maybe Spotnitz wasn’t right for this show (though I’ve read or heard nothing to indicate this was the case), but in choosing to go without a showrunner for much of season two, Amazon only ended up reinforcing the show’s worst ideas. A series like this needs a producer with a strong control of tone at every level, so it doesn’t accidentally end up validating dark ideals. It cannot simply run itself, or it risks far worse than being a boring TV show.

And, sadly, that’s what happens as The Man in the High Castle wraps its second season. Bad guys are shut down. Good guys succeed. Surprise twists arrive to make you roll your eyes at their ridiculousness. There’s no core idea, just the thought that if you make a show based on a popular book, set in an alternate reality, a lot of people might watch it, uncritically.

Alas, this seems to be Amazon’s overriding philosophy when it comes to making television: if you toss a bunch of money at something, people might watch it, and it might look good enough to win some Emmys. But that only works with strong creative forces behind the scenes, as, say, Transparent has in Jill Soloway.

Good TV cannot be reverse-engineered from the outside, as Amazon apparently believes it can. You can’t pretend to be good so hard that you actually become good. Doing post-episode post-mortems with producers doesn’t make you HBO if the actual content of your episodes hasn’t bothered to engage with any of your show’s themes in the way HBO’s shows do.

The second season of The Man in the High Castle ends with the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from the great musical Cabaret. It’s one of the most chilling numbers in the show — a promise that Nazism might have arisen in Germany, but it didn’t happen there because Germany was somehow different or morally deficient. It could have happened anywhere that humans grind each other into dust, anywhere that oppression rules, anywhere that people are needlessly cruel in response to minor slights, which is to say it could happen anywhere.

Tomorrow belongs to the Nazi youth singing the song — but it also belongs to you and you and you and me. The first season of The Man in the High Castle understood that on some level. The second season uses the song as if to say, “Lol, Nazis, right?” Tomorrow belongs to all those people over there. We could never do anything this evil. Please leave a five-star rating and ignore the world on fire right outside your door.

The Man in the High Castle season two is streaming on Amazon Prime.


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