The Plot Against America

This plausibly implausible counter factual imagines an America where Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR on an isolationist platform.  Lindbergh stops sending military aid to the British and sends it to Germany instead.  He makes nice with prominent American Jews, but he also appoints the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford to the Cabinet and invites Ribbentrop to the White House.  But he keeps America out of the war, which keeps his poll ratings high.

American Jews are then faced with an extraordinarily fraught set of choices. Should they actively cooperate, or passively resist? Should they move to Canada?  Or should they just keep their heads down and hope for the best?

I’m not a huge fan of Phillip Roth novels generally, but the characters he created for this story, based in some cases on his own family, are complex and interesting.  David Simon and Ed Burns, the guys who created The Wire, really know how to tell a story.  The combination makes for a very satisfying series.

Although the book was told primarily through the eyes of a young boy named Phillip, the author’s alter-ego, the show runners were smart enough to tell the story through multiple points of view.  The soul of the TV series turns out to be Bess, Phillip’s mother, who doesn’t lose her moral compass in the face of government pressure to do otherwise.  (In an interesting bit of karmic casting, the actress who plays Bess, Zoe Kazan, is the granddaughter of Elia Kazan, the Hollywood director who in real life made somewhat different choices).

One of the most interesting, and simultaneously disturbing, things about watching this series is the way it presents America of the 1940s as both comfortably familiar and shockingly different.  We all grew up with the story of a United States in which people of all races, colors and creeds, united by a foreign attack, joined together to defeat evil dictators and save the world. But in a world where Pearl Harbor never happened, things didn’t work out that way.  America remained fragmented and polarized, in a way it perhaps It has never stopped being.

Perhaps that’s why the show runners ditched the novel’s artificially happy ending (where everything gets back on track) for a more ambiguous one. That’s appropriate, I think.  Some decisions can be undone, but others have permanent consequences.  Nothing is ever back the same as it was.

The first two episodes of this 6-part series are a bit slow, as all the characters are introduced and their story lines set up.  Starting with Episode 3, the series picks up the pace, and doesn’t let up until the end.

On HBO.

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