Photo Credits: Michele K. Short / HBO
The Plot Against America, one of HBO’s newest miniseries, is a terrific adaptation of Philp Roth’s ingenious alternate-history. The show, adapted by David Simon and Ed Burns, brings a new dread and urgency to Philip Roth’s brilliant 2006 novel. Simon and Burns, the creative minds behind the HBO series The Wire (more commonly known as the best TV Show of all-time), have done an excellent job of adapting the series and making important for our current moment. It also does an excellent job of highlighting Jewish culture and politics, and how individuals respond in times of crisis.
The story takes place in the early 1940s, with the Jewish Levin family in Newark, New Jersey. Just when the Levin family has begun to call America home, Charles Lindbergh is elected as President. Lindbergh, the famed pilot and anti-semite preaches a policy of isolationism and begins to change the lives of the Levins forever.
Part of the genius behind the book and the series is that it understands that politics and religion are personal.
Part of the genius behind the book and the series is that it understands that politics and religion are personal. Everyone’s relationship with religion and politics is different, and that informs how they behave and act. While characters like Herman who see Lindbergh for what he is are important to the story, characters like Sandy and Aunt Evelyn are just as if not more important. Sandy is obsessed with Lindbergh in the beginning, partially in awe of him and out of rebellion towards his dad. He ends us growing hostile towards his family before recognizing that he was mistaken. Aunt Evelyn struggles to find love and meaning until she finally falls in love with President Lindbergh’s biggest enabler. She becomes a pawn in a much larger game and betrays many of her family members and fellow Jews in the process. The story understands the nuances that come with the crisis and recognizes how different people react to different situations. This nuance elevates the series beyond the basic World War II-inspired alternate histories and makes for great storytelling for HBO and Simon and Burns.
This show also does an excellent job of representing Judaism and the 1940s. The streets filled with kids playing. The beautifully lit synagogues filled as people sing Oseh Shalom. The Jewish symbolism and cultural influences of the 1940s are all here, and they are beautifully executed. It really represented Judaism better than most shows. This along with the excellent character work, allows this story to go beyond basic archetypes or stereotypes.
The actors and actresses themselves also do an excellent job. They all knew their parts inside and out and succeeded in drawing out their characters’ personalities. While everyone is great, the most impressive has to be Zoe Kazan as Bess. Bess is the mother of the Levin family, and she carries much of the emotional weight the family is going through. She does an excellent job of conveying the real trauma she is experiencing, while also trying to soldier on a strong face for her children. There is one scene where she is on the phone with another character, and it is deeply moving. Watching Zoe Kazan break as she tries her best to stay motherly is one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful performances of the year.
The Plot Against America is a masterclass in great television.
The series also makes some really terrific decisions with changing the story. The show gives Alvin a much deeper and more interesting arc. It also adds to Sandy’s story in unique ways as well. Roth’s book spoke to Simon and Burns, and I love that they found a way to adapt it for the current moment without losing the main beats of the story. This is a phenomenal series and a terrific example of how fiction can be adapted with Donald Trump in mind. It is also one of the best representations of Judaism I have seen on screen. I am incredibly impressed with Simon and Burns, as they have once again made a must-watch television series that speaks to the problems in our current moment. The Plot Against America is a masterclass in great television.