The spread of fast internet access had opened up a whole frontier of entertainment, as a whole new world of TV and film has been opened up to us all.
But with so much out there, how are you supposed to find the good stuff? That’s where we come in… welcome back to DownStream.
In this new streaming TV landscape Netflix has been dominant when it comes to original programming. The streaming giant is now turning out series that have it level-pegging with premium cable channels such as HBO and AMC.
Amazon Instant Video however, had been lagging behind. It’s originals didn’t quite have the sheen or critical success of Netflix shows, as anyone who had the misfortune to see the Zombieland pilot can attest.
Things are starting to change though, with Amazon’s first breakthrough hit Transparent winning plaudits from critics and audiences alike.
Amazon has a unique approach to its original content. Rather than go straight to series and hope for the best, Amazon Studios greenlights pilots for dozens of series each year. These are then released to the public in Amazon’s “Pilot Season”, with the episodes available whether you happen to be an Amazon Instant Video subscriber or not.
Series orders are then given to the shows which receive the best feedback and viewing figures, allowing the audience to have a say in what makes it to full season.
The stand-out from the latest Pilot Season is alternate history drama The Man In The High Castle. It’s been so popular in fact that it’s one of the series which has already received a full-season order. Based on the novel by Phillip K Dick, The Man In The High Castle takes place in an alternate version of the 1960s.
In this timeline the Axis Powers emerged victorious at the end of the Second World War. As the opening titles make clear, the United States was conquered and divided between the victors – Japan ruling the Pacific East states, and Nazi Germany controlling the rest (with a neutral zone in-between).
The pilot is something of a masterpiece of nightmarish world-building.
The art design does a wonderful job of creating a convincing and believable alternative reality. It’s backed up by a script that is solid (although not exactly subtle) to create a compelling and troubling world on screen.
The story follows a character on both sides of the divide – an apparently idealistic young man keen to join the resistance on the West side, and a woman on the Pacific side who gets reluctantly drawn in following the death of her half-sister. This gives us a chance to get to see what life is like under the rule of both oppressors.
As the USA is now a puppet state of the Reich, most Nazis we see are actually American collaborators. The show goes out of the way to show us how dastardly and wicked those Nazis can be. On the other hand, while the Imperial forces are still villainous. the series is keen to show other Japanese characters in a more sympathetic light. This is actually just as well, as if handled poorly it would be easy for this concept to have come off as appearing racist.
The pilot throws in an interesting mystery to have you eager for the series to continue. Heroine Juliana finds herself in possession of a film reel that appears to show the Allies winning the war. But how can this be? Even more intriguing than the plot surrounding the main characters is the one that is going on in the background.
Tensions are rising between Japan and Germany and threatening to boil over. With Hitler in poor health and on his way out, the Reich is in the midst of a dispute over who will succeed him as Fuhrer. When the new leader is in office, it is suggested that the tensions between the two Axis powers will more than likely turn into all out war.
The pilot – executively produced by Ridley Scott, no less – is an incredibly effective hour of television. Even if it sometimes feels like an episode of 90s TV sci-fi Sliders that takes itself a bit too seriously. It’ll be interesting to see how well and it translates into a full series; presumably the Nazi spaceships of Dick’s original novel won’t make the cut.
But considering the episode was Amazon’s most watched pilot to date, there’s going to be an awful lot of viewers who can’t wait to find out.