‘The Plot Against America’ is excellent. But is this what you want to be watching right now?
Before my first cup of coffee, when I sat down the other morning to watch the second episode of The Plot Against America, I absentmindedly clicked “Watch New Episode” for Westworld instead. As soon as I saw what I’d done, I wished I were about to watch Westworld instead of Plot. This illuminates the question behind David Simon and Ed Burns’s (The Wire, The Deuce) new limited series, which isn’t, “Is it good,” as much as, “Should I watch it?”
At the time Philip Roth released Plot in 2004, he was known more for charting the ups and downs of his own priapisms via Roth proxies than revisionist dystopian thrillers, if one can really call Plot thrilling. If you’re looking for Jack Reacher-style male wish fulfillment, look elsewhere. Both the novel and show watch the rapid descent of American life into anti-Semitic fascism through the eyes of Newark’s Levin family, as America Firster Charles Lindbergh parlays his aviation celebrity to the presidency on an anti-war, isolationist platform while the Third Reich storms their way across Europe. If racist celebrity putz rises to power sounds familiar, that’s the point.
While nobody was really predicting the rise of Trump in 2004, Roth would’ve been writing The Plot Against America on the heels of 9/11, during the implementation of draconian policies like the USA PATRIOT Act and enhanced interrogation. Frequently bare-assed Roth proxy, Ezra Blazer (henceforth referred to as BlazerRoth), in Lisa Halliday’s 2018 novel Asymmetry, is obsessed with Bush Junior’s administration. Circumstantially, it’s safe to assume Roth was, too. Like Plot’s characters, BlazerRoth shoots the shit about jazz, baseball, and fascist dangers people are eager to downplay so they can carry on with their normal lives. He just does it from the comfort of a swanky Manhattan apartment.
The Levin family of Plot’s 1940 are relegated to Newark’s Jewish Weequahic neighborhood of Roth’s youth. “We’re not poor,” says patriarch Herman (Morgan Spector), “We have a car and food on the table.” Still, Herman and his wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan), aspire to a larger house with a backyard and rooms for each of their sons, teen Sandy (Caleb Malis) and young Philip (Azhy Robertson). Herman rails pro-FDR and anti-Lindy during evenings around the radio while his brother Monty (David Krumholz) and malcontent nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) argue that Lindbergh could win. “They see him for what he is,” says Herman. “Who do you talk to? You live in Jersey, Newark, in the Jewish part of town,” retorts Monty.
Further popping their bubble, Aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder) finds herself under the spell of collaborating Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), an active America First legitimizer. He orates Jewish dedication to This Great Country in a cornpone accent the goyim can dig. The pieces are in place for forces to tear apart a family, forces summarily dismissed while picking up Black Forest cake days before Lindy’s election at the end of episode two. (“Enjoy the Black Forest,” is a slyly ominous line from the neighborhood baker.)
Burns and Simon pull off the feat of familiarizing 1940s Bizarro Newark in the same way that they managed to make you feel like you’d be able to navigate Baltimore after two episodes of The Wire. The pacing manages to be simultaneously stately and to build an anxious dread.
The cast are game. Kazan again proves that her restraint is about a million times louder than any other actor’s emoting. Boyle is wonderful to watch as a human coiled spring ready to kill some Nazis. Ryder turns in another effectively twitchy performance, and Turturro oozes like nobody’s business.
Is it good? It’s excellent. Should you watch it? Plot is not comfort viewing. Tonally, it probably has more in common with The Handmaid’s Tale than The Man in the High Castle. I’m reviewing this while sheltering in place at a time when my home state’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, suggested actually sacrificing the lives of our older citizens as a palliative for the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s been a surge in hate crimes and resurgence of white supremacism since about four years ago when we had a good laugh at a doofus reality star descending a gold escalator to announce his presidential bid.
You don’t need me to tell you what state the world’s in or to outline the dangers of populism and fascism. You probably don’t need The Plot Against America to do that for you, either. At this point “It Could Happen Here” is pretty much its own genre. As an exemplar of the genre, Plot does it far better and more realistically than most. If that makes you crave The Great British Baking Show instead, you can revisit it later, like that Wire show you’ve meant to watch for the past fifteen years or so.