We may never know what prompted two of the most sociopolitically concerned writers in modern television history to turn at this precise juncture to adapting Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, which imagines an America that has elected a populist celebrity demagogue as president and begins to slide towards fascism. But they have, and David Simon’s and Ed Burns’s six part HBO series has reached our shores. Roth always insisted that his story about aviation hero Charles Lindbergh beating Roosevelt in the 1940 election was not a political allegory. But politics has changed.
Working on a smaller canvas than usual – a family, the Levins in New Jersey, is the point of departure rather than a police department (The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Streets), neighbourhood (The Corner, Treme) or an entire industry (The Deuce) – Simon and Burns are able to fill their latest creation with a more intimate sense of foreboding and jeopardy. There is an air of danger which, little by little, suffuses every area of the characters’ lives, through a politics that preys on people’s post-Depression insecurities and fears. Slowly, as people repeatedly point out today, it comes. And then suddenly, all at once.
The drama takes its time establishing the utter normality of the Levins, including all the imperfections and tensions along whose lines the family will begin to crack. Herman Levin (Morgan Spector, who occasionally seems as if he’s acting in a slightly less sophisticated production than everyone else, though not enough to weaken what is a great cast) is an energetic optimist. Perhaps this is because, as his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) suggests, he has grown up in a Jewish neighbourhood, shielded from the common, casual prejudice of the outside world. Her upbringing as part of the only Jewish family in a gentile area has left her more alert than her husband to the threat posed by the charismatic Lindbergh (Ben Cole) and his ability to rouse and validate deep hostilities.
Their two sons show the effects of age and temperament in their reactions to strange times. The younger boy, Philip (Azhy Robertson), is beset by nightmares. The elder, Sandy (Caleb Malis), is awed by Lindbergh, ready to rebel against his father and eager to avail himself of the apparent opportunities offered by the new regime. For example, the special “Just Folk” scheme set up to give city boys (at a time when “city values” was code for “Jewish”) a taste of rural American life by sending them to stay in good, solid midwest homes for six-week stretches.
Their cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle), taken in by Bess and Herman after his parents’ death, is frustrated by his uncle’s belief that – in the words of Sinclair Lewis’s earlier novel, predicated on a similar conceit to Roth’s – it can’t happen here. Alvin prefers direct action – first by beating up a couple of Lindbergh supporters outside a German-themed pub and then by enlisting in the Canadian army. He effectively poses the question of whether anything less counts as complicity – whether sitting tight and hoping for the best like Herman or, maybe, tweeting into the void and signing a couple of online petitions leaves the fascists free to set about their unlawful business, emboldening themselves and others as they go.
Bess’s spinster sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) – recently betrayed by a lover who had promised her he was divorcing his wife – falls in love with Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a rabbi and supporter of Lindbergh’s anti-war stance who argues that the accusations of antisemitism that accrue to the man are simply Democratic propaganda. Neither Evelyn nor the ambitious rabbi can see he is being used, as Alvin puts it, “to kosher Lindbergh”.
Over The Plot Against America’s six-hour course, Simon and Burns do their usual exceptional work in delicately fitting pieces of a larger and larger puzzle together to reveal a bigger and more complicated picture at every step. If the beginning seems a bit stagey – for parts of the first hour especially you feel a bit like you’re watching the opening act of an Arthur Miller play, which is absolutely fine if you’re at the theatre watching an Arthur Miller play, but not particularly helpful in drawing you into a television drama – it finds its feet quickly thereafter. The parallels with today’s society and politics are many and obvious, but never laboured. If they nevertheless sometimes feel overwhelming – well, that may just be on us. Because it can happen here. The non-Hermans among us would say it is.