BINGE-R #20: The Man in the High Castle + You Me Her
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE S2
Streaming Service: Amazon Prime Video
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
The Man in the High Castle starts with a concept that ruptures the history of the 20th century – Nazi Germany and Japan were victorious in World War II and have divided the occupied United States – and turns it into a gripping drama that plays out on an individual level. The world building is fascinating, but Amazon’s series is truly about the constant fear and ready surrender that come from living under totalitarianism. Set in 1962, there are ghoulish and expertly sold set-pieces, such as season two’s opener where high school students pledge obedience “to the absolute leader of the Nazi empire, Adolf Hitler”, but what stays with you is the myriad ways that many people carry on without freedom.
The show’s protagonists are at the pointy end of the struggle, but survival predates heroics. Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) and Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) are a San Francisco couple caught up in subterfuge when the former’s sister delivers her a mysterious film can just before the Japanese secret police descend, while Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) is a New Yorker whose loyalties are deeply torn even as he pursues the same mysterious samizdat. The films are newsreels that suggest a different reality – one where the Allies won World War II – and their presence, via the unknown Man in the High Castle, gives the show an otherworldly mystery that’s revealed with tingling economy.
The cost of living under bloody subjugation circulates through the smartly plotted storylines. I can’t think of another show where a minor character can turn the moment and mood inside out with a single remark. When Frank meets a Jewish survivor from the Nazi-occupied east, the man calmly tells him, “Overnight, lynch mobs were murdering Jews because suddenly we were less than human.” The oppressors, particularly the ruthless head of the SS in the now Greater Nazi Reich, John Smith (Rufus Sewell), direct a monstrous machine, but they retain a flawed humanity that can make for unexpected turns.
When Amazon launched in Australia last December they had the first season of the show, which has been liberally adapted from Philip K. Dick’s book by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files), and now they’ve put up the second. It widens the political and cultural net – you see more of the 75-year-old Hitler’s imperial Berlin, the Yakuza, and persecuted minorities – while expanding on the titular mystery, and it also refocuses the characters, particularly the increasingly defiant Frank, against a backdrop of a very different Cold War. I had the first season of The Man in the High Castle on my 2016 Top 10 [list here], and the new batch of episodes only deepens and darkens the show’s compelling grip.
YOU ME HER S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
The danger in Netflix’s comedy You Me Her – the story of a married Portland couple who both start a fulfilling relationship with a young escort – is that it could become a male fantasy. The solution? Make it everyone’s fantasy. The romantic triangle that forms between high school administrator Jack Trakarsky (Greg Poehler), his architect wife Emma (Rachel Blanchard), and university student/escort Izzy Silva (Priscilla Faia) deeply satisfies each of them. The stagnant married couple rediscover both sexual passion and each other, while Izzy is drawn to each of her cash-only suitors.
The polyamorous relationship that takes shape in the first episodes balances up the gender gap: it’s Jack who first hires Izzy, on the advice of his boorish brother, Gabe (Kevin O’Grady, exceptional at playing a boorish brother), but it’s Emma who first sleeps with her after his panicked confession reveals Izzy’s existence. This all unfolds with tart dialogue – “they should have filmed it for an abstinence PSA,” laments Jack of an attempt to sleep with his wife – and quickly cut handheld camera framing from series director Nisha Ganatra, who also banishes the male gaze from the not that risque sex scenes.
Still, it’s not an easy concept to make plausible or persuasive. You Me Her needs a constant kismet between the three leads, but when they’re separated in the second episode the tempo can drag. Later episodes add in some suburban snooping, as Jack’s unorthodox private life endangers his professional standing, but the growing problem is that while Poehler (the younger brother of Amy) is a strong comic performer, riffing on neuroses and niggles, he can’t attain the contemplative depth that Blanchard does. Inequality handicaps the show: she’s a better actor than him.
>> Bonus Binge: If you want some more offbeat but self-contained takes on modern love try Netflix’s Chicago anthology series Easy [review here], which is a showcase for independent film auteur Joe Swanberg.
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