This review contains mild spoilers about the premise of the series, but leaves most of the key plot beats from both the TV series and the original book unspoiled. We’ve seen all six episodes of the limited-edition TV series, with the first episode airing March 16 on HBO, but only mentions the first two episodes.
With fantasy and sci-fi as one of the most popular genres of television, we see the rise of that realm’s sub-genres – specifically the subset of alternate history, which was once shelved alongside tales of dragons and elves. The last, The Plot Against America, is HBO’s most recent crack in the category. But from what we’ve seen of the first season in preview form (the first episode premieres Monday, March 16), the series stumbles upon itself to make a point about the current political landscape, undermining its message in the process. .
The late author Philip Roth drew inspiration for his 2004 novel about alternate history from the real-life figure of Charles Lindbergh, the 1920s aviator who became a superstar celebrity decades before there was a term for it. Living abroad in the 1930s, Lindbergh was an open supporter of non-intervention and Nazi Germany, and his return to America in 1939 sparked press stories that he might become president. His 1941 Iowa speech, in which he blamed the “three main groups” of “the British, the Jews and the Roosevelt administration” for World War II, illustrated his anti-Semitic views. His influence was so great at the time that President Roosevelt found it necessary to publicly rebuke him for it.
These historic footnotes are the starting point of Roth’s story, where Lindbergh goes to work in 1940 and wins the presidency by riding a wave of racial fear.
Fig leaf cover
With its echoes of the current political landscape, this should lead to immersive TV. The just-below-the-surface fury of Roth’s novel contains a source of emotion. Viewed from the barely fictionalized perspective of Roth as a child, the Levin family—parents Herman (Morgan Spector) and Bess (Zoe Kazan), and sons Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Philip (Azhy Robertson)—live the nightmare of a presidency empowering those who would openly discriminate against them.
Each family member reacts differently to Lindbergh’s victory. Herman denies that the rise of fascism can ever take place here, but only realizes that it can and is day after day. Bess prefers fleeing to fighting and begs to move to Canada. Sandy buys what Lindbergh sells and offers to be shipped out to the farmlands to see “real America.” Cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle) flees to Canada, not as a draft evader, but to fight the war Lindbergh promises to avoid. Local Conservative rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) senses opportunities and gives Lindbergh fig leaf cover by backing him. Philip’s aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder), who always deludes herself, marries Bengelsdorf, believing that wealth and power will protect her.
If the story works, it will arrive as the thump that Roth’s novel intended. For example, the Levin family’s attempt to move to a better neighborhood takes on the same horror undertones it did in 2018 Out when the family car turns the corner and finds a German-style beer garden with Nazi-esque types watching them. The encounter is more effective on screen than on page because it is not seen solely through the eyes of an innocent child, allowing each family member to react in the moment.
There’s also a replay of Lindbergh’s real-life speech in Iowa. Like the book, the series transposes the event about a year back (before the 1940 Republican National Convention) and reinterprets it as the coming-out speech of the candidate-to-be. Watching families gather horribly around the radio and react explosively to what they’ve just heard brings a terrifying energy to these long-ago political moments.
But the final scene also epitomizes when HBO’s series goes too far. As the men gather in front of their homes after the speech, Philip watches through the window. A voice comes from below: “If a man tells you he’s an asshole, believe him.”
This anachronistic version of Maya Angelou’s now oft-repeated quote that: made a stir after Trump announced his presidential run is shocking. I’m sorry, is this scene supposed to be the 1940s version of Twitter?
The answer seems to be a considered ‘yes’. And it’s just the beginning of the series that takes scene after scene from the novel and spins them 90 degrees off-axis to insert over-the-top parallels between Roth’s 1940s vision and the present. Episode 2, for example, ends with the 1940 election: The Levins believe Roosevelt will handily take up the night, then slowly deflate as the Lindbergh-preferred returns roll in. The movie theater that plays the newsreel of Roosevelt’s concession speech is not holding up. quite the shock of MSNBC and CNN on election night. But the show is working hard to draw the direct line so the viewer will make the jump.
Which president are we referring to again?
The Plot Against America is a surprising choice from writers David Simon and Ed Burns, best known for HBO’s The wire† Not that The wire drew no analogies — Season 3’s references to the Iraq War weren’t subtle. But Conspiracy Against America pulls the viewer out of the story when it can, like a loud buzzer sounding just offstage. Perhaps this is a conscious decision to play up the relevance of this Nazi-in-America story for fear of making the same mistake Amazon did with The Man in the High Castle† (While that show was a good adaptation of the material, it sometimes seemed to assume it was all it took to make a dystopia interesting by slapping Nazi logos on everything.) HBO’s refusal to give the intelligence respecting the audience to make the connections themselves erodes the impact the series could have had otherwise.
One of the joys of alternate histories is that writers don’t make parallels explicit, allowing them to connect where they can, an open subtext that can be applied wherever it fits. The Plot Against America novel is a perfect example, initially seen as about the second Bush administration. It’s a credit that it’s even more relevant today. Insisting that it can only be interpreted this way feels like the work of those who can’t or won’t imagine how it might be read in the future.
The Plot Against America is HBO’s latest Great Monday Night Hope in an effort to colonize beyond the Sunday nights it has dominated for the past two decades. So far only last year’s Chernobyl managed to land with viewers, another story in which history was retold in hopes of saying something about today. But ChernobylThe writers understood that the power of the message came from letting the story speak for itself. If only The Plot Against America had relied on Roth’s voice to do the same.