The Plot Against America “Part One”

Alright, after covering one high profile HBO mini-series for Tuesdays, here’s a very different one.  The Plot Against America is based off a novel by prolific novelist Philip Roth, one that takes a very different track from his usual work chronicling the Jewish American experience by looking at it in a different light, namely an alternate history.  Here, a fascist president in the form of national hero Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency, and Roth used it to examine the lives of some ordinary Jewish Americans living through a potentially tough time.

That, by itself, sounds promising.  Making it more so is the names behind it, namely Ed Burns and David Simon, the two men behind The Wire, so, if nothing else, this should be a well-crafted piece of television.

Now, there’s only six episodes of this, but the decision to make the main characters a group of ordinary Americans and not people in power is a good one.  I haven’t read much Roth, but the idea of not quite fitting in seems to come from a lot of what I have read, so people directly involved with the power struggle in the country are probably not going to be within his wheelhouse.  As for Burns and Simon, while the work of theirs I know best does show a lot of people in power, they arguably focus more on how the decisions of the powerful affect everyone below them.  That I can get behind as well.

Regardless, this here is all set-up.  The main focus is on the Levins.  Father Herman is an insurance agent, one of the more politically outspoken men in his neighborhood.  Wife Bess is a quiet housewife and mother.  Her older sister Evelyn is unmarried, lives with her mother, and is fairly independent.  Herman’s orphaned nephew Alvin lives with the family, and Herman and Bess have two sons.  Older boy Sandy has some artistic talent while younger brother Philip is starting to discover girls thanks in part to a more worldly school friend.

So far, not too much of this is probably all that different from the real world.  The Levins live in Newark, and Herman has the opportunity to buy a house rather than rent if he takes a promotion and moves across town, an opportunity he turns down when he sees a German beer hall full of patrons who may or may not be too friendly is fairly nearby.  Bess, for her part, looked a bit nervously at a man washing his car in another driveway that was staring at the family a bit.  Alvin is turning into a juvenile delinquent, but given who he and his friends beat up by the end of the episode, Alvin may have absorbed a bit more of Uncle Herman’s politics as it is.  Beyond that, the biggest issue for the extended family seems to be Evelyn’s love life and how how hard living with her demanding mother seems to be.  Evelyn’s current beau, a married Italian man from the looks of things, breaks it off in this episode, but Evelyn may also have her eye out for one Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf.  He’s very much in favor of Lindbergh’s anti-war views even if they are a bit too close to the Nazi view for Herman’s taste.

Huh.  We may be looking at a romantic pairing between Winona Ryder and John Turturro…I don’t know what I think of that.

Now, David Simon at the least is fairly politically outspoken, and there is a strong part of me that wonders about the timing of a production like this.  That anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice happen to be timely to a piece of art may not be limited to the here and now, of course, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t done now due to real world events and realities.

Regardless, it’s off to a good start, with the threat of Charles Lindbergh being limited to a background chatter that none of the main characters seem to truly believe could ever happen.  He’s not a politician, says Herman, and his views are too extreme for most people.

Yeah, we’ll see about that.

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