With the premiere of “Transparent” last fall, Amazon Studios established itself as a legitimate home for original half-hour scripted series. The show’s star Jeffrey Tambor and creator Jill Soloway went on this year to earn the first Primetime Emmy Awards for digital giant’s original entertainment division.
What “Transparent” didn’t do was give Amazon any cred in the hour-long drama department. But Amazon is betting big that its new series “The Man in the High Castle” can become its calling card in the genre and a major step in its development as a destination for premium content.
“We obviously needed to jump-start it in a big way,” Amazon Studios head of drama development Morgan Wandell told TheWrap. “The fastest way to do it was to find old material that for one reason or another hadn’t gotten made and that we could get into production in a timely manner.”
Wandell joined Amazon in 2013 from ABC Studios, tasked with creating nearly from scratch a pipeline for hour-long drama. Amazon had good reason to push hard into the genre. HBO, AMC, Netflix and other competitors had built their identities on so-called premium dramas such as “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “House of Cards.”
Hoping to do the same, Wandell set about calling well-known producers and asking them what passion projects they might be sitting on that they hadn’t been able to get made elsewhere.
Frank Spotnitz had such a project. A former executive producer of “The X-Files,” he and Wandell had worked together on the short-lived series “Night Stalker” at ABC. Years earlier, Spotnitz had teamed with Ridley Scott‘s Scott Free Productions to develop Philip K. Dick‘s novel “The Man in the High Castle” as a series. Scott had already struck out with a version of the project at the BBC, but landed a second chance at Syfy and brought in Spotnitz to do a new adaptation.
Syfy, however, ended up bailing too. Dick’s science fiction novels, often depicting dystopian futures or parallel worlds, have been notoriously difficult to adapt. “The Man in the High Castle” was no exception. The book depicts a world in which the Axis Powers won World War II and the United States has been divided between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. It’s not exactly low-concept.
“There’s no question that the scale and scope, especially of the pilot, was almost daunting,” Wandell said. “Every detail had to be meticulously thought out.”
Spotnitz said that he was never told why Syfy turned the project down, but conceded that the story isn’t a natural fit for series adaptation.
“It’s a wonderful book, but it’s not a TV narrative, necessarily,” he told TheWrap. Dick’s book takes place primarily in Japanese-controlled San Francisco and the lawless Rocky Mountain neutral zone between Japanese and German territory. It also lacks a heavy. The Japanese and American characters that populate it all operate in morally gray areas against the backdrop of two empires preparing for a geopolitical tussle.
“I’ve read the book several times, and I still find new meaning every time I read it, about what it means to be human in an inhuman world and what the nature of reality itself is,” Spotnitz said. “Those are really difficult things to dramatize.”
Thus Spotnitz added Nazi characters and a third location, German-occupied New York, introducing a proper antagonist and expanding the scope of a world to be explored over the length of a series. The additions build on one of Dick’s original themes — that human beings can be monsters and still be human beings.
SS officer John Smith, played by Rufus Sewell, is terrifying as he goes to brutal measures to quell the anti-occupation resistance movement. But it’s equally unsettling to watch him eat breakfast with his family and take interest in his oldest son’s schoolwork — all while wearing his Nazi uniform.
A show heavy on Nazi imagery risks undermining the power of real-world history and iconography that still today is still employed by hate groups today. Spotnitz is conscious of the line he walks.
“I’m dealing with hate in this show, and brutality,” he said. “Unfortunately, those are still really relevant and still very present in not just our country but around the world. It’s kind of what makes the show still really relevant and timely, but it also means I have to be very, very careful.”
The show also represents a business risk. Because of its alternate 1962 setting, it requires significant investment in special effects, costuming and sets. It also has an aggressive marketing campaign backing its launch. A show like that is expensive, and if it fails, it does so loudly and at great cost. But if it succeeds, it also makes a great impact.
Amazon Studios is in need of impact, and has proven willing to take big risks with that goal in mind. The company has been a target of criticism for partnering with controversial entertainers like Woody Allen and former “Top Gear” host Jeremy Clarkson on upcoming series projects.
But the “High Castle” risk isn’t based on potential scandal but the more run-of-the-mill “This thing is expensive so it had better work.” And the show’s success will be judged almost entirely by intangible metrics such as buzz. Amazon, like Netflix and Hulu, refuses to release viewership numbers.
Critical response to the series, however, so far has been positive. Aggregator Metacritic gave the series a 78 score, making it one of the best-reviewed new shows of the current season.
And there is at least one other tangible by which by which Amazon’s investment in “High Castle” can be judged — whether, come Emmy time next year, it can score in the drama categories as “Transparent” has in comedy.