First look UK TV review: The Plot Against America
Ivan Radford | On 14, Jul 2020
“What just happened?” That’s the question that lingers in The Plot Against America, HBO’s miniseries that imagines what the world be like if a fascist was elected to the White House. The very fact that this doesn’t sound like a subtle starting point for a TV series highlights how timely this drama is – a dystopian tale based on a book that was written just over 15 years ago.
Philip Roth’s speculative fictional novel of the same name is set in an alternate America, one that parts way with history in 1940, when aviator and war hero Charles Lindbergh rises to power. A populist figure who extols the virtues of America putting America first, he wins over the public with rhetoric about not losing US democracy to the brewing war in Europe – by staying out, he reasons, America can retain its sovereign identity.
But that very act of not participating, not speaking out, is itself an act of collusion, and The Plot Against America – beneath its explicit study of how fascism can rise when unchecked – is at its heart a haunting depiction of complicity. It comes in all forms, both intentional and unintentional, and David Simon and Ed Burns capture every shade conceivable in their thoughtful, expansive drama. It’s horrifying in its quiet accuracy, as the pair craft a script swimming in double-speak and plausible deniability. At every step, the show positions its characters just on the boundary of acceptability, at the point at which they can be defended as innocent, filtered through the most respectable lens and foolishly dismissed as harmless.
Ben Cole is excellent as the charismatic deliverer of speeches that play out across radio waves, but he’s a background figure in many ways, certainly in the opening episodes; The Plot Against America tellingly focuses away from the political front line and instead spotlights a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey. Morgan Spector is wonderful as Herman, the head of the Levin family who works in insurance. A polite, respected fellow, he increasingly descends into angry, swearing rants as Lindbergh climbs in public estimation – and that outward transformation serves as a barometer for the gradual, radical ways in which their lives are transformed.
From the always-excellent Zoe Kazan as matriarch Bess to Anthony Boyle (who impressed in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) as young Alvin, who lives with Herman, the family unit is an immediately believable one. Winona Ryder almost steals the show as Bess’ sister, Evelyn, who is taken under the wing of rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, played with a kindly authority by John Turturro. But Bengelsdorf’s support of Lindbergh, his insistence that Charles can’t possibly be xenophobic, anti-semitic or a fascist, is part of the slippery way in which Lindbergh is condoned, accepted and enabled, even by those most unwilling – and unwitting – to do so.
That simple ability of these baby steps to convince in their quotidian normality is what gives The Plot Against America its power – and Simon and Burns’ work has always emphasised the nuanced details of grounded realism. Rooting its drama in baseball-watching, stamp-collecting mundanity, The Plot Against America is a remarkable, all-too-prescient dissection of how fascism can take hold of a civilisation – a glossy companion piece to the BBC’s Years and Years, or a less audacious cousin to Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. It’s a compelling, chilling portrait of the ways in which individual lives can continue to push through everyday routines, while the world changes unnoticeably around them – until, well, it’s too late not to notice.