HBO's brilliant miniseries achieves new resonance in the days of fear.

By Darren Franich
March 16, 2020 at 04:30 PM EDT

The Plot Against America (TV Show)

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HBO's stunning new miniseries The Plot Against America debuts Monday night. I watched all six episodes a month ago, and haven’t stopped thinking about it. The adaptation of Philip Roth’s counter-history novel tracks one Jewish American family through the ascent of an anti-semitic president. Plot’s Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole) is a celebrity with zero political experience running a populist campaign rooted in racial grievance. His rise causes hatred to go viral: casual bullying, racial epithets on the street, a resurgent Klan.

Plot portrays how jeering authoritarians enable violent prejudice, and vice versa. Creators David Simon and Ed Burns previously worked on HBO’s The Wire, and Plot shares that great drama's preference for atmospheric detail over straightforward plot momentum. The pacing creates an experience that is suddenly quite relatable in these dark days of COVID-19. Plot Against America is about fascism. It’s also about how a social disaster gradually amputates all possibility from daily life.

The early episodes draw you into the rhythms of the Levins’ neighborhood: kids playing on the street, parents talking back to radio, the local gas station, the local movie house, the local everything in a lost downtown world with surnames on every sign, "Silver’s Barber Shop" and "Kessler’s Furniture," "Tabatchnick’s Delicatessen" and "Breck’s Hardware." "We live in Newark, in Jersey, in the Jewish section of town,” says Monty (David Krumholtz), brother of Levin patriarch Herman (Morgan Spector). He means to say that they’re living in a bubble. But just as The Wire’s richly imagined Baltimore reflected the failures of institutions across America, the Levins stand in for any besieged family suffering under the bootheel of state-sponsored bigotry.

The 2004 novel has obvious 2016 parallels. And the wonder of the miniseries is how Simon and Burns hold such a delicate focus on every member of the family. They all react differently to their historical crisis. Morgan rages with paternal pride, jutting his chin into danger to prove he’s not afraid. His wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) is a realist, and like any good U.S. citizen in a dystopian reality, she immediately suggests moving to Canada. Teenaged son Sandy (Caleb Malis) loves Lindbergh. Baffled little brother Philip (Azhy Robertson) has bad dreams every night, vividly feeling the terror all around him.

Michele K. Short/HBO

Terror: That’s the most palpable sensation that Plot evokes. And that’s why the series has achieved even more resonance than its creators could have possibly intended. The finale is currently slated to air in mid-April. Mid-April is very far away. Hell, tomorrow is far away. The coronavirus stalks the land. Governments are reacting — too slow, too slow. The bad news started long ago, of course, and then last week all the news was bad: Stocks plummeting, industries on hiatus, entertainment delayed, no parking spaces left outside the supermarket. Now fear dominates the headlines. COVID-19 makes its way into every conversation. It is simply the conversation, defining all responsibilities, pushing normal concerns aside.

One must keep the mood up in dark days, so I understand why every entertainment venue has posted some variation of a "Things To Watch Under Quarantine" rundown. And I’m proud that Entertainment Weekly’s list is the only one that includes Person of Interest, Spirited Away, and Stargate: SG-1.

You can’t binge The Plot Against America, but you should watch it, every Monday between now and April 20. We're certainly a captive audience. My decidedly non-expert prediction is that a significant proportion of humanity will spend the next five weeks recommended (then mandated) into self-isolation. Actually, the possibility that the quarantine will only last until April 20 seems optimistic. In five weeks you can tell me I was overreacting, Mom.

So Plot will work as a cathartic ritual and as an entertainingly weekly hour of television. And it is very entertaining, not the take-your-medicine slog I've seen some other reviews describe. Early episodes evoke the Levins' world with un-preachy particularity, welcoming you into a remote time with details that seem pleasantly familiar. Herman has ambitions, checking out real estate listings in fancy suburbs. Bess is going back to work. Young Philip is off snooping with a weirdo-cool schoolmate. The nerdlinger kid next door bothers everyone. Lindbergh is a distant figure. Everyone has friends. You get to know the neighbors.

Then comes the fear. Events that were far from the family’s situation becomes the family's situation, like a butterfly flapping its wings in Wuhan that causes a typhoon in your living room. Typical situations edge into fatal terror. Supporting characters fade from view. Everyone retreats (too late) into the comforts (not anymore) of their own home.

Plot views this all clearly as a result of a tyrannical government, which we see up close in a satiric subplot involving Bess’ sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder). But the series mostly adheres to the Levins’ perspective. You feel their steady slip from regularity into what Roth termed "perpetual fear." Safety turns to danger. There are no more children playing in the street. Average citizens view each other with suspicion.

Maybe this sounds familiar to you. Maybe you’re still wondering what the fuss is about. The mix of reactions to COVID-19 over the last month mirrors how the Levin family sinks into their own encroaching horror. Herman is proud, righteously assured that It Could Never Happen Here. Bess is the paranoiac, her accurately dark premonitions dismissed. (You imagine her three weeks ago, the nag demanding constant handwashing.) Sandy doesn’t even think there’s a problem: The arrogance of youth, though it took an old man to close the White House Pandemic Office. And poor young Philip is paralyzed, lacking even the vocabulary to explain all the changes he sees in the world around him.

You could say the Levins are lucky. They have each other — though the people you love most are also the carriers you can’t avoid with social distance. Plot's patience pays off in its incredibly thrilling final hour, so I hope you won’t mind the leisurely beginning. Stick with it. We’ve got nothing but time, if we’re lucky.

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