TV shows depicting alternate histories can teach us something about our reality today
CHICAGO -- There's a scene in episode nine of the first season of "The Man in the High Castle" -- Amazon's show based on Philip K. Dick's novel -- that seems designed to induce giddiness in a series that, up to that point had been serious, restrained and often drab.
A disillusioned high-ranking Nazi official who trades secrets with the Japanese dresses for an important meeting. We see a black leather suitcase containing a crisp black uniform decked out in patches and pins of high rank, gleaming buckles, iron crosses and the tell-tale red, swastika-emblazoned armband.
Gene Pitney's bawdy, yearning song, "Town Without Pity," plays as the official slips on his SS tie pin and ring, sips an aperitif, then closes the brushed silver buttons down his beautifully tailored cashmere jacket and slips impeccable black leather boots on over his jodhpurs.
The message had been implicit in all the scenes featuring the majestically costumed Greater Nazi Reich, but this one in particular screamed "These Nazis are sexy!" It was jaw-dropping and squirm-inducing.
Many parts of the show have that vibe about them -- that the dystopia wasn't so dystopian for everyone.
"The Man in the High Castle" envisions an alternate history in which the Axis powers were victorious in World War II and now rule over the former United States. In the western part of the country, which is under Japanese control, life is awful. Poverty is rampant, slavery is in effect, it's dark, everything is filthy, and people are sweaty and stressed out.
But the eastern part of America, which had been annexed by Hitler, is a land of milk and honey: Everyone is white, middle class or wealthy, well-spoken, impeccably dressed and happy. Everything is crisp and new, the sun shines and birds sing, etc. Berlin, Germany, too, is shown as a glorious, thriving epicenter of riches, culture and advanced technology.
Even before its premier in November 2015, "The Man in the High Castle" sparked concerns that it would glorify Nazism when Amazon's marketing people wrapped the exteriors and interiors of 42nd Street shuttle trains in Manhattan with the show's Third Reich imagery.
However, throughout its two seasons, fans have come to know the show as being anything but pro-Nazi. It is, in fact, disturbing, complex and nuanced, but there's never any real question who the bad guys are, demonstrating that it is possible to depict an imaginary regime with both the glamour that totalitarianism can provide to the people in power and the despicability it represents.
Still, it's easy see how such a fraught topic could be mishandled in the process of making entertainment.