Monday Night Nope — Philip Roth’s novel, interpreted by ex-The Wire writers, got our hopes up. Alas. Ani Bundel – Mar 17, 2020 10:45 am UTC This review contains mild spoilers about the series’ basic premise but leaves most major plot beats of both the TV series and the original book unspoiled. We have seen…
This review contains mild spoilers about the series’ basic premise but leaves most major plot beats of both the TV series and the original book unspoiled. We have seen all six episodes of the limited-run TV series, whose first episode debuts on HBO on March 16, but only mention the first two episodes.
With fantasy and sci-fi skyrocketing as some of the most popular television genres, we’re seeing the rise of that realm’s subgenres—most notably the alternate-history subset, which was once shelved alongside stories of dragons and elves. The latest, The Plot Against America, is HBO’s most recent crack at the category. But from what we’ve seen of the first season in preview form (its first episode premieres Monday, March 16), the series trips over itself to make a point about today’s political landscape and, in the process, undermines its message.
The late author Philip Roth took inspiration for his 2004 alternate-history novel from the real-life figure of Charles Lindbergh, the 1920s-era aviator who became a superstar celebrity decades before there was a term for it. Lindbergh, who lived abroad in the 1930s, was an open supporter of non-intervention and Nazi Germany, and his return to America in 1939 prompted stories in the press that he might run for president. His Iowa speech of 1941, in which he blamed the “three most important groups” of “the British, the Jews, and the Roosevelt administration” for World War II, illustrated his anti-Semitic views. His influence at the time was so substantial, President Roosevelt felt it necessary to publicly rebuke him for it.
These historical footnotes form the jumping-off point of Roth’s story, where Lindbergh runs in 1940 and wins the presidency by riding a tide of racist fear.
With its echoes of the current political landscape, this should make for riveting TV. The just-under-the-surface rage of Roth’s novel contains a wellspring of emotion. Seen from the thinly fictionalized perspective of Roth as a child, the Levin family—parents Herman (Morgan Spector) and Bess (Zoe Kazan), and sons Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Philip (Azhy Robertson)—lives through the nightmare of a presidency empowering those who would openly discriminate against them.
Each family member reacts to Lindbergh’s win differently. Herman denies the rise of fascism can ever happen here, only realizing it can and is, day by day. Bess chooses flight over fight and begs to relocate to Canada. Sandy buys into what Lindbergh’s selling and volunteers to be shipped to the farmlands to see “real America.” Cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle) flees to Canada, not as a draft dodger but to fight the war Lindbergh is pledging to avoid. The local Conservative Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) smells opportunity and provides fig-leaf cover for Lindbergh by supporting him. Philip’s Aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder), ever self-deluded, marries Bengelsdorf, believing wealth and power will protect her.
When the story works, it hits like the gut punch Roth’s novel meant it to be. For instance, the Levin family’s attempt at moving to a better neighborhood takes on the same horror overtones as 2018’s Get Out when the family car turns the corner and finds a German-style beer garden with Nazi-looking types eyeballing them. The encounter is more effective on screen than on the page since it’s not exclusively seen through the eyes of an innocent child, allowing each family member to react in the moment.
There’s also the restaging of Lindbergh’s real-life Iowa speech. Like the book, the series transposes the event back about a year (before the 1940 Republican National Convention) and reimagines it as the candidate-to-be’s coming-out speech. Watching families gather around the radio in horror, explosively reacting to what they just heard, brings a terrified energy to these long-ago political moments.
But the latter scene also embodies when HBO’s series goes too far. As the men gather outside their homes after the speech, Philip watches through the window. From below, a voice is heard: “When a man tells you he’s a son of a bitch, believe him.”
This anachronistic version of the now-oft repeated Maya Angelou quote that made waves after Trump announced his presidential run is jarring. I’m sorry, is this scene supposed to be the 1940s version of Twitter?
The answer seems to be a deliberate “yes.” And it’s only the beginning of the series taking scene after scene from the novel and spinning them 90 degrees off-axis to insert over-the-top parallels between Roth’s vision of 1940 and the present day. Episode 2, for example, concludes with the election of 1940: the Levins believe Roosevelt will handily take the night, then they slowly drain as the Lindbergh-favoring returns come in. The movie theater playing the newsreel of Roosevelt’s concession speech doesn’t hold quite the shock of MSNBC and CNN on election night. But the show works hard to draw the direct line so the viewer will make the jump.
Which President are we hinting to, again?
The Plot Against America is a surprising choice from writers David Simon and Ed Burns, best known for HBO’s The Wire. Not that The Wire didn’t draw analogies—season 3’s references to the Iraq War weren’t subtle. But Plot Against America pulls the viewer out of the story whenever it can, like a loud buzzer sounding just offstage. Perhaps this is a deliberate decision to play up the relevance of this Nazis-in-America tale, for fear of making the same mistake Amazon did with The Man in the High Castle. (Though that show was a good adaptation of the material, it seemed at times to assume slapping Nazi logos on everything was all one needed to make a dystopia interesting.) HBO’s refusal to respect the audience’s intelligence to make the connections themselves erodes the impact the series might have had otherwise.
One of the joys of alternate histories is that writers don’t make parallels explicit, allowing them to connect where they may, an open subtext to be applied wherever it fits. The Plot Against America novel is a perfect example, initially seen as about the second Bush administration. That it reads even more relevant today is to its credit. Insisting it can only be interpreted this way feels like the work of those who cannot or will not imagine how it could be read in the future.
The Plot Against America is HBO’s latest Great Monday Night Hope in attempting to colonize beyond the Sunday nights it has dominated for the last two decades. So far, only last year’s Chernobyl has managed to land with viewers, another story where history was retold in hopes of making a point about today. But Chernobyl‘s writers understood that the power of its message came from letting the story speak for itself. If only The Plot Against America had trusted Roth’s voice to do the same.