David Simon and Ed Burns’ adaptation of the Philip Roth novel paints a harrowing picture of an alternate America that feels all too prescient.
HBO’s latest miniseries imagines a world where renowned pilot, isolationist, and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh runs for president and defeats FDR in 1940. What follows is a rise in anti-Semitic hate and fascism throughout America. And as you watch the series, you’d be forgiven for thinking this a pretty in-your-face way to address the Trump administration. That might be true, but the series is based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name which was released more than 15 years ago in 2004. If anything, Roth’s The Plot Against America has been frustratingly, dishearteningly prescient. It’s no wonder showrunners David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire) were drawn to it.
The show follows the Levin family (originally the Roths in the novel) as they deal with the shifting political tide and how it strains their family bonds. Father Herman (Morgan Spector) is an outspoken liberal who finds Lindbergh distasteful and disgusting. Wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) frets constantly for the safety of her family, remembering all too well how isolating it was to be the only Jewish girl in her class growing up.
Cousin Alvin shares Herman’s political leanings, but is determined to act, eventually signing up for the Canadian army in order to “kill Nazis.” Meanwhile, impressionable young Sandy (Caleb Malis) grapples with his hero Lindbergh’s politics while his little brother Phillip (Azhy Robertson) tries to make sense of it all. Things are only further complicated when Bess’s sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) falls for Rabbi Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a staunch Lindbergh supporter.
Simon and Burns have an incredible sense of pacing and that skill is definitely on display here. Months pass in between episodes, with the writers seamlessly carrying us from one pivotal moment to the next without ever losing a sense of the slow burn of hate engulfing the country.
Their expertise here actually helps to make this a uniquely un-binge-able show. Not because you won’t want to know what happens next, but because it’s simply so nauseating how familiar it all feels you’ll just want to curl up into a ball.
We watch alongside the Levins as Lindbergh, the “pilot with opinions,” rises to power. “They think Lindbergh can win,” notes one character as he garners support on the campaign trail. A grave and frustrated Alvin merely retorts, “He can…” When Lindbergh wins, Herman sees the real danger noting, “Everyone believes he doesn’t mean what he says.” If this doesn’t send memories of 2016 flashing through your mind, what will?
If this doesn’t send memories of 2016 flashing through your mind, what will?
The series isn’t without its faults, however. In Burns and Simon’s attempt to capture some of the more everyday moments of the Levins’ lives, there are scenes that feel strangely disconnected from the rest of the story, particularly those centering on young Phillip. A large amount of time is spent on Phillip’s friendship with a fellow student, Earl, but it’s never really clear what point they’re trying to make with these scenes.
It’s also frustrating to see scenes where black people appear as background filler in the crowds—we even get closeups of their faces in a pivotal scene—but they have no lines. In fact, there are no black characters at all. While a story that’s specifically about Jewish life in America should certainly be focused on Jewish Americans, to act as if African Americans or any people of color for that matter don’t exist in New Jersey, one of the most diverse states in the country, feels like a serious misstep. When the camera does pause on a person of color, it feels like they’re being used as props and at this point, we’ve come to expect so much better from Simon and Burns that it’s a real disappointment.
That said, in a time where anti-Semitism is once again on the rise (a Nazi flag was recently unfurled at a Bernie Sanders rally), The Plot Against America is still well worth your time. Spector and Ryder give standout performances and newcomer Azhy Robertson as little Phillip is surprisingly captivating with all his wide-eyed wonder, confusion, and horror. The only real question here is if you’re ready for a show about fascist America to feel quite so much like a mirror.
The Plot Against America comes to our shores March 16th on HBO.