TV viewers thinking “alt history” and “Nazis” will likely conjure up “The Man in the High Castle,” Amazon’s recently concluded four-season series based on Philip K. Dick’s novel about a world in which Germany and Japan won World War II and conquered most of America.
Now we have the alt history series based on a novel written by another Philip — Roth, in this case. But HBO’s “The Plot Against America,” based on Roth’s 2004 tale about an America in which hero aviator (and Nazi sympathizer) Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and leads America down the road to fascism, isn’t nearly as boring as “The Man in the High Castle.” While it takes a while to get going — in that too-much throat-clearing-context type of way — it eventually lays the foundation for a narrative that, had history broken a different way, isn’t too far-fetched … especially when viewed through the lens of today’s polarizing, turbulent times.
The series, premiering March 16, begins in June 1940 in Newark, NJ (Roth’s birthplace and the setting for many of his novels and short stories). The Levin family — hard-working dad Herman (Morgan Spector), his wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan) and their two sons, Sandy (Caleb Malis) and kid brother Philip (Azhy Robertson) — live comfortably enough in a largely Jewish neighborhood. Bess’ single older sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), is a frequent visitor, as is Herman’s orphaned nephew, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), a hot-head working in a local garage.
They’re all somewhat insulated from the anti-Semitism rumbling around them, particularly in nearby Union — home to an outdoor beer hall of rowdy, insulting bullies — but those rumblings are becoming more difficult to ignore as Hitler continues his march across Europe, chronicled in the flickering newsreels shown in the neighborhood movie theater.
It’s into this bubbling, polarizing political cauldron that beloved national hero Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole), preaching a policy of isolationism, throws his hat into the presidential ring on the Republican side of the aisle. Lindbergh’s pro-German feelings are well-known — he received a medal from Hitler and Hermann Goering on his visit to Nazi Germany — and he isn’t shy about publicly laying blame for America’s pro-war leanings on the doorstep of its Jewish community. He’s reviled by Herman, Bess and their Newark neighbors for his thinly veiled anti-Semitism, but they’re convinced he can’t possibly beat the powerful, revered Roosevelt. Lindbergh has an important ally in the Jewish community in respected, widowed Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a Southern transplant who insinuates himself into Lindbergh’s campaign with his unflagging support and strikes up a romance with Evelyn — a socio-political double-whammy for her friends and family.
I’m assuming that “The Plot Against America” screeners made available by HBO will be cleaned up before airing, since there are several embarrassing anachronistic gaffes, including 21st century street lighting, a blue Chase Bank logo, obvious aluminum siding on Newark houses, a New Jersey Transit-type bus seen fleetingly driving across the background of one scene and a production tent — with Klieg light — that’s visible in a street scene about 11 minutes into the second episode. Still, they’re not as egregious as that infamous coffee cup in “Game of Thrones” and they don’t subtract from the dramatic forcefulness of a series that hits very close to home in the America of 2020.