‘The Plot Against America’ hits too close to home

Sunday, March 22, 2020 - 3:41pm

NOSELL

HBO

As fantasy and sci-fi have become two of the most popular television genres, we’ve now reached the point where subgenres have emerged, most notably alternate history. Based on the late Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name, HBO’s alternate history miniseries “The Plot Against America” imagines what life would be like in a world where Hitler and the Nazis prevailed and what it would be like for a Jewish family to live through a presidency that empowers those who openly discriminate against them. Eerily close to the world we live in now, this should make for an addicting show.

In the first episode, set in 1940, our protagonists, the members of the Levin family, aren’t concerned with the upcoming presidential election at all, even after the beloved pilot Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole, “Sense8”) announces his bid for the presidency against FDR. Herman Levin (Morgan Spector, “Homeland”) dismisses Lindbergh as “a pilot with opinions,” but a larger divide within his family looms. His son Sandy (Caleb Malis, “Blood Widow”) draws sketches of Lindbergh under his covers at night. His sister-in-law Evelyn (Winona Ryder, “Stranger Things”) becomes romantically involved with the popular Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro, “Green Eggs and Ham”), who insists that Lindbergh’s previous anti-Semitic comments amount to nothing more than innocent ignorance. 

This is where the fiction of the show meets the reality of America in 2020. Both reflect a country where many people aren’t entirely sure if the candidate for president is bigoted or if they are just speaking thoughtlessly. Regardless, a large portion of Americans seem willing to accept that tradeoff. The image of a strong leader is more important than the reality of where that person will actually lead them. For many Americans, the choice was simple — a vote for FDR was a vote for entering the war. The main characters’ thoughts are guided by which candidate presents the most immediate benefit for them, without thinking about how their beliefs might affect groups on the margins. 

While the pilot is relatively uneventful, it is important as it lays the groundwork for what’s to come in the next five episodes. The series has all the elements necessary to be an intriguing and addicting miniseries, if only it would stop trying to force the natural parallels between Roth’s America and our current one. In one scene, a man says, “When a man tells you he’s a son of a bitch, believe him” — a riff off the Maya Angelou quote that gained a newfound appreciation after Trump first announced his presidential run. Moments like this felt too much like I was in some sort of 1940s version of Twitter. This extra mile to make it overtly obvious is a bit much, as the parallels are already apparent on their own.

Perhaps the effort to force these parallels is intentional in an attempt to avoid the same mistakes made in shows like Prime Video’s “The Man in the High Castle,” which assumed that portraying an America with swastikas slapped everywhere was enough to keep an audience engaged. However, these efforts come across as HBO underestimating the intelligence of its audience to make the connections themselves, which lessens the impact the series might have had otherwise. The best series avoid these explicit connections, as they trust the power of the message comes from letting the series speak for itself. If only HBO had trusted the writers of “The Plot Against America” to do the same.