David Simon, screenwriter extraordinaire, is back with HBO’s The Plot Against America, an adaptation of the eponymous book by Philip Roth.
NOTE: Since I am wholly unfamiliar with the book, this piece will only concern with the series.
Simon, who has shows like The Wire (often called the best TV drama ever made) and more recently The Deuce to his credit, is known for confronting unpleasant realities plaguing the American society in intricate detail.
The Plot Against America may be David Simon’s most timely and also his least nuanced work yet. That is not to say it not worth watching. On the contrary, The Plot Against America, at least so far, is the best show of 2020. It is just that it is missing the subtlety and detailed exploration of issues à la The Wire.
The Plot Against America is set in a fictional 1940s, at the height of the Second World War, around the time the Nazi forces overran France and threatened mainland Britain. The incumbent US President Franklin D Roosevelt is facing a populist Republican candidate called Charles Lindbergh, a real-life war veteran and a borderline Nazi who advocated a neutrality pact with Germany. Lindbergh was at loggerheads with Roosevelt in real-life, but did not contest any elections against him — or, any election otherwise.
In the world of The Plot Against America, Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt and becomes the president, which leads to the persecution of Jews.
Our protagonists are members of an ordinary Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey who are struggling to adjust to the exacerbating social environment, wherein they are labelled outsiders and the group of people the ‘Americans’ should be watchful about.
The writing, once again, is quite solid, and this was not surprising for me at all for a show created by David Simon. Both the story and the characters are quite engaging. Also, the journalistic accuracy that has defined Simon’s work (he was a reporter with The Baltimore Sun before he became an author and a screenwriter) is present here too. This may also have to do with the source material.
What took my breath away was the world-building. The production design is nearly flawless. The setting of the show looks pretty believable as a result. Not many expensive blockbusters can match up to the world-building here. The visual work is good everywhere, including the promotional art (just look at the poster at the top of this piece).
David Simon and his longtime collaborator Ed Burns cleverly use Charles Lindbergh’s actual words as his declaration to be a presidential candidate in a radio broadcast. In the speech, Lindbergh blamed three entities for forcing America into war: “the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt Administration.” Everybody except Germany, the one country that actually began the war.
If this sounds like a certain populist president at the head of the US government, this is exactly what Simon intends. The parallels to Donald Trump, who has likewise distanced close US allies in NATO, and has appeared to be close to white supremacists, are obvious. Too obvious, perhaps. This is the only slightly disappointing thing about the show. The so-called relevance is too in-your-face, and that is not like Simon at all.
For instance, a lead character mentions something along the lines of how people keep saying Hitler does not actually mean the hateful things he says. He is just being overly dramatic and so on — a clear reference to Trump. David Simon is known for quite baroque insults directed against Trump and his acolytes (just head over to his Twitter handle to get the idea), which are often more indirect than the Trump references in The Plot Against America.
That aside, The Plot Against America is a trademark David Simon show — well-written, engaging and tackles an important contemporary issue. I cannot wait to see how the story progresses.
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