What a crazy world we live in. Now imagine we have a celebrity president running the country and seeming to be doing the bidding of a foreign power while slowly eroding the rights and civil liberties of a certain subset of our citizens. That’s the premise set forth in HBO’s new six-episode limited series “The Plot Against America.” Based on Phillip Roth’s alternative history novel of the same name, this series tells the story of famous, national hero aviator and xenophobic populist Charles Lindbergh’s rise to the presidency in 1940 and the stirring cries of nationalism and anti-semitism as they creep across the country.
“The Plot Against America” is a slow burn mostly told through the eyes of the Levins, a Jewish middle-class family living in New Jersey in the 1940s. Outspoken father Herman (Morgan Spector) and mother Elizabeth (Zoe Kazan) are trying to raise two sons, older son Sandy (Caleb Malis) and younger son Phillip (Azhy Robertson), during times of increasing uncertainty and hostility. The parents try to shield their sons from the outside world and its influences as the country tries to stay neutral in WWII as the country starts to adopt the more restrictive policies of the Third Reich over in Germany in regards to its Jewish population.
As the government and its more prejudiced citizens start to encroach on their livelihoods and freedom with assimilation programs, condoned racism and acts of violence, cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle) and auntie Evelyn (Winona Ryder) both embark on their own paths that ultimately gets them in over their heads and have lasting effects not only on their family but the entire country. There have always been people with racist beliefs and hatred in their hearts, but now they have permission to spew the vitriol out loud in the open under a nationalist administration. Sound familiar?
As the hostilities increase, Alvin crosses the border to join the Canadians in WWII as he believes the Jews have done enough talking and they need to take action, a view that is at odds with his uncle, Herman and eventually comes to a head. Evelyn starts working with and ultimately marrying Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) who is seen as a Jewish mouthpiece for the Lindbergh administration and preaches the virtues of assimilation. All the while causing friction between the two sisters Evelyn and Elizabeth and her family as they question what more they need to do to prove their “Americanness.”
The question of what makes one American has been asked decade after decade, especially in recent years. As a country that is a melting pot of cultures and people from around the world, it is a valid question. The debate over assimilation and nationalism has been oft discussed in recent years and this series tries to show how those ideologies play out. Creators David Simon and Ed Burns (the same team behind “The Wire” and “Generation Kill”) do a skilled job of parsing out the political and cultural nuances of this “alternate history.” Although the series starts really slow and doesn’t have the heightened drama that one has come to expect from this genre (like Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle”), the tensions just simmering under the surface come to a boil in the last episode. It’s just hard keeping one’s attention all the way through.
Even though “The Plot Against America” comes across kind of boring and lackluster in the beginning, there are many things done well in this. For one, the casting is great. Turturro is perfect as the rabbi with good, but misplaced intentions to help his people. His character arc is the most interesting and compelling and the one that will keep viewers coming back. You want to dislike and distrust him as he comes off as kind of a Rasputin-like character, but in the last episode the curtain is pulled back on his character and the administration as a whole, leading one to question what are people true intentions and what is real. Ryder’s character on the other hand, is the most frustrating in the series. She comes across as a weak female trope, so blinded by the need for a man that she alienates her family and compromises her morals until her world comes crashing down and she tries to come crawling back.
Anthony Boyle brings an intensity and a “live life by the seat of your pants” mentality. Unfortunately, his character’s storyline seems somewhat truncated and rushed leaving viewers unfulfilled and lacking. The creators and team did a great jobs with the casting of the young boys (Sandy, Phillip and neighbor Seldon, played by Jacob Laval) who are thrust into this scary, uncertain and confusing world. Because of their innocence and naiveté, they don’t really understand the consequences of their actions or the things that are happening all around then that affect their daily lives. And if you have a heart, young Seldon’s storyline will definitely tug at those strings. To see and try and make sense of such baseless prejudice and violence through the eyes of kids is always tough and hard to pull off and the young actors do a great job of conveying that confusion and loss of innocence.
If you can get past the lack of in-your-face drama and condensed storylines and make it all the way to the 6th and final episode, it’ll almost be worth it. It’s like a slow, chugging climb up a rollercoaster for the first five episodes, and then you hit the top and come barreling down all too fast and it’s over before you know it. But if you stick around, the series gives you enough to question the truth, our current political climate and the cries of nationalism while drawing parallels between the “past” and today.