Near the start of The Plot Against America (Sky Atlantic), Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) is driving his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) and their children through a neighbourhood in New Jersey. It’s 1940, and across the Atlantic, France has capitulated to the Germans, who have started bombing the UK. Round a corner the Levins see a group of American fascists drinking in a German bar. The message could hardly be clearer. It’s not that it couldn’t happen here; it already is happening.
David Simon and Ed Burns might not have been the obvious choices to adapt Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, set in an alternate-reality America where the aviator Charles Lindbergh (played here by Ben Coles) beats Roosevelt and becomes president on a pro-fascist, anti-war ticket. The writers have never taken on a historic novel before. On The Corner, The Wire and Generation Kill, their work has tended to the granular and realistic rather than broad-sweeping fantasy. But it proves a good fit. Just as The Wire depicted the effect of failing institutions – the police, the government, the schools, the media – on individual lives in Baltimore, over six episodes The Plot Against America shows how fascism doesn’t have to arrive with jackbooted invaders. It proceeds by nudges and winks and slow but insistent pressure on normal families.
The first episode introduces the Levins, and the scene is so familiar that it could be the start of a missing Arthur Miller play. Herman, the handsome paterfamilias, is an insurance salesman with MetLife, trying to juggle being a father to teenage son Sandy (Caleb Malis) and 10-year-old Phillip (Azhy Robertson) with shouting at the radio about the state of the nation.
The book is narrated by Phillip, but the series has a wider perspective. The main difficulty in Herman’s life is tearaway nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle), who starts to take the battle against fascism into his own hands. Bess’s sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) is struggling to find a man, and finds herself drawn to Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a charismatic but slippery rabbi who will become Lindbergh’s tame Jewish leader.
There are strong performances throughout, but Kazan is particularly strong. Bess is quiet but more sensitive than her husband to the growing hostility of their surroundings, and in less capable hands could seem like a wallflower, but Kazan gives her a subtle steeliness. As smart, engaged citizens, and having seen the burgeoning Nazis near their own homes, Herman and his family and friends immediately see the appeal Lindbergh will have. Even so, they fail to appreciate just how dangerous it could be for them.
The Plot Against America is a gripping vision of the dangers of populism and bigotry, which avoids preachiness by focusing on domestic minutiae. This is not the extreme vision of The Man in the High Castle, with its seas of swastikas, but a more nuanced exploration of political upheaval. If the Trump comparisons occasionally feel a little too on the nose, that is hardly the fault of the programme makers, who do not labour the parallels. Simon and Burns are masters of real life, and they understand that the bad stuff takes place while people are just eating or walking dully along. It’s not a nihilistic vision of America, and it’s all the more alarming for its plausibility.
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