In the first episode of the HBO miniseries, fascism begins to take hold in the United States.
The first images we see in The Plot Against America (Mondays, 9 p.m., HBO) are from newsreel footage of Hitler sympathizers. They fill up stadiums, heil the Nazi flag and chase Jews down streets. Only some of this archival material comes from Germany. The rest of these smiling anti-Semites are all-American.
Created by The Wire’s David Simon and based on the 2004 novel by Philip Roth, this six-episode miniseries imagines what would happen if a populist demagogue came into power in the U.S. and began dismantling the fabric of American society, starting with the Jews. It doesn’t have to imagine very much. Drawing on the real strain of pro-fascist sentiment that ran through many Americans in the 1930s and ’40s, as well as familiar “America First” rhetoric, this Plot feels eerily timeless.
The first episode (now streaming on HBO’s subscription service) feels like a wartime “homefront” drama. Set in Newark, New Jersey, it follows the middle-class Levin family as they react to news of the American aviation hero (and Detroit native son) Charles Lindbergh’s rise to political prominence on the back of an “anti-war” movement that happens to align with Hitler’s agenda. Lindbergh’s dangers seem obvious to the Jews. But to everyone else, he’s a hero.
The Levin patriarch, Herman (Morgan Spector), absorbs all this through the radio and cinema newsreels, like any cable news-addicted suburbanite today. He unleashes furious rants to the rest of his family, but his words have little power beyond his Jewish social circle. His sons Philip (Azhy Robertson) and Sandy (Caleb Malis), their mother Elizabeth (Zoe Kazan), her sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) and their cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle) all grapple with this new America in different ways: some by fighting it, some by embracing it, some by just trying to keep the peace.
Roth structured his novel as a memoir, looking back on his boyhood self. But the show removes the memoir aspect, and with it the safety net of the passing of time — so everything feels more immediate and unsettling. Plot’s premiere ends with one of the children secretly drawing admiring sketches of Lindbergh under his bedcovers at night. It’s a sign of the insidious ideology soon to take root in the land of the free.
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