HBO's The Plot Against America feels even more relevant amid the coronavirus panic

  • David Simon and Ed Burns' six-episode miniseries adaptation of Philip Roth's 2004 alternate history novel contains pacing that "creates an experience that is suddenly quite relatable in these dark days of COVID-19," says Darren Franich. "Plot Against America is about fascism. It’s also about how a social disaster gradually amputates all possibility from daily life." He adds: "You can’t binge The Plot Against America, but you should watch it, every Monday between now and April 20. We're certainly a captive audience. My decidedly non-expert prediction is that a significant proportion of humanity will spend the next five weeks recommended (then mandated) into self-isolation. Actually, the possibility that the quarantine will only last until April 20 seems optimistic....So Plot will work as a cathartic ritual and as an entertainingly weekly hour of television. And it is very entertaining, not the take-your-medicine slog I've seen some other reviews describe. Early episodes evoke the Levins' world with un-preachy particularity, welcoming you into a remote time with details that seem pleasantly familiar. Herman has ambitions, checking out real estate listings in fancy suburbs. Bess is going back to work. Young Philip is off snooping with a weirdo-cool schoolmate. The nerdlinger kid next door bothers everyone. (Charles) Lindbergh is a distant figure. Everyone has friends. You get to know the neighbors. Then comes the fear. Events that were far from the family’s situation becomes the family's situation, like a butterfly flapping its wings in Wuhan that causes a typhoon in your living room. Typical situations edge into fatal terror. Supporting characters fade from view. Everyone retreats (too late) into the comforts (not anymore) of their own home."


    • What makes The Plot Against America pack such a big punch is its devotion to realism: "Because it pays attention to detail and honors the integrity of the innocent lives at stake, The Plot Against America succeeds where another recent offering flailed," says Meghan O'Keefe. "Amazon’s Hunters reinterpreted the Jewish fight against Nazism as a Tarantino-esque adventure story, complete with a couple of honestly upsetting twists. The Plot Against America anchors its storytelling in its characters’ collective disillusionment in the concept of America, thus making it a truly devastating tragedy to watch. Like last year’s breakout hit Chernobyl, The Plot Against America is a bleak watch, but full of spectacular performances and masterful craftsmanship. All these elements intersect to tell a woefully urgent story. By the end of The Plot Against America, you should be bereft, bothered, and totally inspired to action."
    • The Plot Against America has the air of fiction, with one foot planted in melodrama: "Although the production is fairly naturalistic — kudos to the production designer, location scouts, auto wranglers, hair stylists and costumers — The Plot Against America does have the air of fiction, a TV series with one foot planted in melodrama," says Robert Lloyd. "(It’s surprising; Simon productions typically feel pretty authentic.) Much of what makes the book affecting is, on the one hand, the poetry of Roth’s prose, rendered in the adult voice of his young protagonist, and, on the other, the dispassionate historical context, real and imagined: Action comes in context, with ideas attached. Spoken aloud, and loudly, Roth’s (and Simon’s and Burns’) political points can come across a little too explicitly, obviously, heavily. Perhaps it’s just dystopia fatigue — we have seen so many dark alternate histories by now — but what is disturbing on the page becomes less so given life on the screen."
    • The Plot Against America is essential viewing for all Americans: David Simon "is TV’s master of realism, and here the groundedness of his storytelling combines with the distinctiveness of Roth’s characters to deepen the political profundity as well as the visceral impact of this speculative fiction," says Judy Berman. "(Winona) Ryder, (Zoe) Kazan, (John) Turturro and (Morgan) Spector are all spectacularly alive in roles that require them to give fiery speeches and have emotional breakdowns without appearing rehearsed. Everyone’s point of view is comprehensible, if not necessarily sympathetic. The look of the show is haunting in its familiarity. Pale golden light suffuses each scene, evoking nostalgia for Norman-Rockwell-era America even as we watch Lindbergh’s administration attack the inclusive principles that had brought so many immigrants to its shores."
    • The Plot Against America refuses to sanitize or glorify hatred, unlike recent depictions of fascism: "The Plot Against America, David Simon’s engrossing HBO series based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name, is not the first series in the last few years to take up the mantle of resistance against the rise of fascism, but it is the most artful," says Arielle Bernstein. "Unlike other shows, such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Hunters, that have courted controversy through their depictions of intense brutality that borders on torture porn, The Plot Against America refuses to use cheap shocks, instead focusing on how its characters confront their slow-building anxieties and sense of powerlessness in the face of an increasingly hateful America."
    • It’s a depressingly believable horror story, an invasion of the body-politic-snatchers: "Plot is a departure for Simon, who has not adapted a work of fiction before, yet it feels natural," says James Poniewozik. "Simon is an artist of granular realism, and the lived-in middle-to-working-class Jewish New Jersey he creates gives the series its power...Simon, like Roth, loves a good argument, and the ones here are all too familiar and believable. The accommodationists believe that they can guide the administration away from its worst tendencies. The resisters debate whether simply listening to the radio and getting mad counts as action, or if more active steps are needed. Plot is something of a thematic risk for Simon, too. His past work — The Wire, Show Me a Hero, The Deuce — is driven by the belief that individual acts can do only so much in the face of overpowering social systems. That might have made Plot, the story of how one man’s run for president might have nudged history off course, an uneasy fit for Simon’s philosophy, as much as it might mesh with his politics. Instead, he’s produced a translation that’s at once fully Rothian and fully Simonian."
    • The Plot Against America suffers from revolving around un-extraordinary people living in extraordinary times: "Made about and for a nation accustomed to setting the terms of history, The Plot Against America is a show that not only believes in national exceptionalism but believes its characters exceptional," says Daniel D'Addario. "As such, it has room for applauding its own characters or showing them at their most dastardly; it fails to make them convincingly exist outside of their reactions to Lindbergh, the center of their universe. That it can’t fit in the probing curiosity of its children characters — sidelined utterly, non-factors in the show’s God’s-eye view of the conversations between its adults — comes as no surprise. This is a show that, even as it depicts a precarious moment and exists in one, cannot bear uncertainty. That’s a tendency that makes it both a fairly unpleasant watch, and a sacrificed opportunity to depict something smaller, more tender, and more ultimately human than the end of the world."
    • The Plot Against America nails the fear, but not the emotions: "Early episodes, written by Simon and Burns, struggle to find the sliver of space that exists between topical significance and emotional consequence," says Hank Stuever. "Characters tend to expound rather than converse, having arguments with one another that sound more like op-eds than the range of personal experience. Spector’s Herman is saddled with passionate diatribes; (Zoe) Kazan, as Bess, is able to give a much more effective performance, shaded in an awareness that the life she and her husband envisioned for themselves is inexorably crumbling away. For too long, the action mounts with the same stiff delivery as the newsreels that the characters absorb in their local movie house. The parallels to modern times are mostly low-hanging fruit; the way Herman finds solace in (and supportively talks back to) Walter Winchell’s nightly radio harangues against the Lindbergh administration serve to remind us of the way riled voters on today’s left tune in for their nightly dose of Rachel Maddow."
    • The Plot Against America is a slow, heavy slog: "It’s a belabored device that makes the same point over and over again," says Josh Bell. "Simon’s dedication to social commentary can be bracing and righteous when put into the mouths of fascinating, well-realized characters, but everyone in The Plot Against America is defined by their political beliefs and social standing, with little personality beyond a connection to Jewish culture."
    • The Plot Against America contains conscious echoes of the rise of Trump
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    • The most shocking part of The Plot Against America's premiere episode is the one that's absolutely true
    • David Simon discusses how the 2016 election inspired him to adapt Philip Roth's novel: "That moment really does echo into this," he says. "We have an insurgent populist who is arguing xenophobic things about the immigrants, the immigrant class, about people who are a little different than what he thinks is normative, white America, white Protestant America. We have a rise in antisemitism. We have a rise in race hate, in crimes and in human rights affronts on our southern border. We're separating families. We all saw what happened in the airports almost within a couple months of the inauguration. This stuff plays politically."

    TOPICS: The Plot Against America, HBO, David Simon, Ed Burns, Philip Roth, Coronavirus, Trump Presidency

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