The Plot Against America (HBO) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Friday, April 3rd, 2020  

The Plot Against America

HBO, Mondays at 9 p.m.

Mar 16, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Before Russian bots compelled us to trash talk politicians on Facebook, wed gather on our neighbors’ back porches and armchair-commentate over beers. Before turning to Fox News or Rachel Maddow, we dialed in to snippy talking head radio broadcasts. And before Americas 45th President claimed there were good people on both sides of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, Charles Lindbergh demagogued his way onto the airwaves, in the name of American isolationism (with a not so subtle anti-Semitic tinge).

Point being: the details have changed, but much of America’s substance remains the same between the 1940s and today. And while many of the details depicted in the pilot for HBO and David Simon’s The Plot Against America are fictional—including prominent Nazi sympathizer Lindbergh’s coronation as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s main opponent for the Presidency—the palpable prejudice is more than authentic. So is the anxiety that Jewish lead character Herman Levin (Morgan Spector, whose credits include Homeland and Boardwalk Empire) seethes as he listens to, and shout backs at, Lindbergh’s speeches over his parlor radio. Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick, Olive Kitteridge) is even more effective as Herman’s wife, Bess, who gingerly recalls the bigotry that didn’t lead to outright bullying, but instead bitterly lonely alienation throughout her childhood in one of the pilot’s most wrenching scenes.

The supporting cast has bigger names, with less interesting character development than those aforementioned on-point leads. Winona Ryder, for instance, returns to the David Simon fold five years after her prominent role on his more lively HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero (also a period piece). This time around, she plays Bess’ elder sibling, and is relegated to a B story about being a naive mistress. The thoroughly talented Ryder does her best with the material, but one can only hope that the remaining five episodes in this miniseries give her more of a compelling plot to rival her flashy comeback turn on Stranger Things. Fellow supporting player, and potential love interest on this series John Turturro (on a hot streak of his own after his mesmerizing turn in the 2016 HBO mini series The Night Of, which built on his inimitable legacy of ’90s character acting in everything from The Big Lebowski to Rounders) has merely a glorified cameo in the pilot, giving a speech and introducing himself to Ryder’s character in a surprisingly charming and convincing southern gentile drawl.

Aside from giving these secondary characters more substantive scenery to chew on, our wish list also includes better dialogue for the leads, especially Spector, who spends far too much time reciting thematic exposition. When he does get to speak like a living breathing marginalized minority he’s downright gripping, but show runners Simon and Ed Burns should have more faith that viewers can read between the lines, and ditch the exposition. Simon and Burns, famous for their intricate, socially conscious plots on arguably the greatest TV in history, The Wire, seem far more fixated on period details on this miniseries. And who could blame them? The early ’40s are rarely depicted era on peak TV, and The Plot Against America practically pops off the screen with vividly authentic cars, pillbox hats, and suit ties that seem comically short, in keeping with the era’s fashion. Aside from these delicious details, sets like the Herman Levin home, a local diner (malty soda machine et all), and especially a local Esso gas station sporting every literal bygone bell and whistle, all make this series instantly memorable. If equal attention was paid to the dialogue and the pacing of subsequent episodes (compared to the downright languid table setting of this opener), then The Plot Against America could stand alongside Simon and Burns’ prior TV feats. The source material is certainly worth that more well rounded effort—a 2004 novel of the same time by Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Roth. That book delved into the alternative history nightmare that Hitler devotee Lindbergh ran, and won, against Roosevelt, in a plot that sadly foreshadows America’s current alt-right, anti-Semitic quandary.

But if this miniseries falls short of those lofty goals, it’ll still be sturdily watchable, thanks to its pristine production value and impassioned acting. Let’s remain optimistic that Simon and Burns will work wonders beyond this pilot’s laudable but unremarkable table setting, given their preceding peak TV triumphs. (www.hbo.com/the-plot-against-america)

Author rating: 6/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10



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