You can’t miss the contemporary political undertones in The Plot Against America, David Simon’s HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel—in fact, they’re barely even undertones. Hewing fairly close to Roth’s book, the six-part miniseries is set in an alternate version of America where Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency in 1940 on a platform of anti-war isolationism and thinly veiled anti-Semitism. Roth got the idea for the novel after learning that the celebrated aviator, a member of the pro-fascist America First Committee, was floated by some right-wing Republicans as a potential rival to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Roth’s novel, one of his best, wrestled with his own ambivalence about his identity. He resented being regarded as a Jewish writer rather than an American writer, and fiercely resisted any pressure to act as a Jewish spokesman or representative. The Levin family of Newark, New Jersey, at the center of The Plot Against America, is based on Roth’s own, so much so that he gave the Levins the corresponding first names of his parents, his brother, and himself. But the most vigorous proponent of Roth’s full-throated patriotism in The Plot Against America is not Philip (Azhy Robertson), who observes much of the action with a child’s wonder and confusion, but his father, Herman (Morgan Spector). Herman begins the story viewing the U.S. as his homeland, a place where fascism can never take hold, and each episode chronicles the steady erosion of that faith under the Lindbergh administration.
The miniseries may be rich in mid-20th-century New Jersey atmosphere—the pin curls, lace curtains, swing bands, dark wood furniture, and burly guys slinging potato sacks in tweed caps—but it’s likely to trigger PSTD lingering from 2016. It’s all here: Herman ranting before the election, “Everyone knows what he is. Everyone I talk to,” and his Jewish boss countering, “He’s tapped into something, maybe not with us, but among the goyim.” By the end of the second episode we’ve come to the grim stations of the cross that is election night, early-evening optimism with the Levins laughing around the radio segueing into a final shot of a solitary Herman glowering into the shadows of an uncertain future. He wants to fight, but his wife, Bess (a quietly mesmerizing Zoe Kazan), is far more disposed to flight. When the family takes a sightseeing trip to Washington, she fears that every seemingly helpful person they encounter, from cops to a tour guide, is a secret brownshirt.
Roth’s novel concerned itself with political catastrophe as it unfolds before Philip’s increasingly wised-up eyes. Simon’s miniseries refracts the events through each character as he or she responds differently to the slowly building menace: stubborn Herman; nervy Bess (who is soon lobbying for a move to Canada); Sandy (Caleb Malis), Philip’s older brother, smitten with the dashing figure Lindbergh cuts and an eager participant in an exchange program designed to send urban Jewish kids to live with heartland farm families to give them a taste of “the real America.” The program’s founder, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), is a smooth accommodationist with a South Carolina drawl, thrilled to serve the handsome young president. In the novel, the rabbi is merely a slick opportunist, but Simon and Turturro have transformed him into an object lesson in disastrous self-delusion. Bess’ sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), marries him, and he plucks her from impending spinsterhood into wealth and influence—until one night she finds herself dancing at a White House dinner with the Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. By the end of the miniseries, Ryder’s exquisite cheekbones look brittle enough to crack.
The Plot Against America is entertaining: handsome, well-acted, and full of tensely plotted sequences—most notably, a road trip that Herman and Sandy make to Kentucky to rescue a little boy whose mother has been murdered by an ascendant KKK. But it has a slippery relationship to reality. It’s neither an unabashed counterfactual fantasia, like The Man in the High Castle, nor, for obvious reasons, especially realistic. It suffers from the solipsism of its source material; Roth was always terrible at imagining the experiences of any other group targeted by American prejudice. In the miniseries, silently noble blacks attend the funeral for Walter Winchell, assassinated after he launches a presidential campaign to defeat Lindbergh, and the Levin’s Italian neighbors show up to offer the family bundt cake and a loaded pistol when anti-Semitic violence breaks out on the streets of their neighborhood. But what, exactly, is happening to these and other minorities as racist and fascist forces, what Herman’s boss describes as “Cossacks,” grow ever more emboldened? “These assholes,” Herman spits out, “They’ve always been there, but now they have permission to crawl out from under their rocks.” And when they do, something tells me they come after more than just the Jews.
The Plot Against America reminds its viewer so incessantly of its parallels to 21st-century politics that it often feels more like a parable than a drama. “This is how it starts,” says Herman just after the election. “Everyone thinking they can work with the guy, bring him around.” “Congress won’t stand for it!” he protests to his boss after the man predicts that Lindbergh will ally the U.S. with Hitler. “Won’t they?” the man replies. “We don’t have enough Democrats left after the landslide.” Herman berates his merchant brother for deciding Lindbergh is not so bad because he seems to be good for business. And when Herman’s nephew Alvin, who volunteers to fight with the British and comes back missing a leg, is approached by resistance agents to help with a plot to take Lindbergh out, he remarks, of the vice president, “Even if you pull it off, you still end up with Wheeler. He’s no better than Lindbergh. He might even be worse.”
It’s hard to immerse yourself in a fictional, historical world that won’t stop buttonholing you to point out its similarities to the real, contemporary one. The Plot Against America isn’t agitprop—not quite—and God only knows Roth’s novel was darkly predictive of the slide toward authoritarianism we’ve witnessed over the past three and a half years. But the series’ feet are in the 1940s while its head is in the late 2010s. And as a result doesn’t feel like it fully belongs anywhere.