When Philip Roth published “The Plot Against America” in 2004, his revisionist historical fiction in which Germany wins WWII and America elects a fascist who runs on xenophobia was an intriguing — if unsettling — thought experiment. In 2020, the bestselling novel has become an eerily prescient allegory. It’s no wonder that after the election of Donald Trump, HBO approached “The Wire” creator David Simon to adapt the novel. The resulting six-episode miniseries begins Monday night with a delicately rendered, if somewhat muted, opening episode.
Painted in the sepia tones of the past, “The Plot Against America” is far too close to an increasingly frightening present. Whether that ends up being too close for comfort or just distant enough to be a wake-up call (for anyone who still needs one) remains to be seen. The question lingering after the promising premiere, however, is whether now is in fact “the right time” for an allegory about the rise of fascism, when the likelihood of that actually happening on a larger scale than it already has grows every day.
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It’s not exactly reassuring that the 1940’s fashion and antique cars look so good under Minkie Spiro’s and Thomas Schlamme’s expert direction. The two veteran TV directors, (Spiro of Downton Abbey” and “Barry”; Schlamme of “The West Wing” and “The Americans”), split the miniseries in half. Spiro takes the first three episodes, and her craft is on full display in a visually rich premiere that introduces more than a few outstanding performances.
Any first episode has the job of establishing the universe, creating a connection to the characters, and setting the plot in motion — all of which are done beautifully here. We meet the Levin family (they’re the Roths in the novel) during the hustle and bustle of Friday night Shabbat dinner, the camera circling their humble yet polished dining table as sons Philip (Azhy Robertson) and Sandy (Caleb Malis) run around causing a ruckus. Their mother Bess (Zoe Kazan) tells them to wash their hands while father Herman (Morgan Spector) graciously caves to a Hasidic man’s gentle Shabbat guilting and donates to Palestine. The specter of what’s to come is hangs in the air with Philip’s innocent query: “We don’t need another homeland, right?”
While not exactly a discovery since his breakout in “Marriage Story,” little Azhy Robertson is completely engaging as both the comic relief and the beating heart of the series. This casting win is a major boon for the show, seeing as Philip is the obvious stand-in for the author. The way Robertson’s eyes widen at a nude drawing passed to him in class, or his jaunty little walk down a hallway, prove this young actor possesses innate instincts for embodying a character.
Philip’s youthful naiveté is matched by his father’s cautious optimism, another thrilling breakout performance from the charismatic and infinitely watchable Morgan Spector (“Homeland”). As Herman vacillates between moral outrage and head-in-the-sand hopefulness, Spector emanates a blend of confidence and vulnerability. As the Jewish neighborhood gathers outside to discuss the growing popularity of Charles Lindbergh, aviation hero and notorious anti-Semite, Spector lays out some considerable exposition with an easy naturalism.
Granted, that’s not such a hard task with a David Simon script, which he wrote with “The Wire” collaborator Ed Burns. But the hefty material feels light in Spector’s telling, as when he pontificates: “Win or lose, there’s a lot of hate out there. And he knows how to tap into it.”
The women have less to do in the first episode, so it’s tough to assess Kazan’s contributions just yet. She is mostly in scenes with her sister Evelyn, played by Winona Ryder. Both actresses could work on their accents (maybe they get better), but they seem to decide at random which syllables to put some vague Yiddishke spin on.
The standout scene of the episode goes to Philip and his naughty friend Earl (Graydon Yosowitz). Arriving in a gorgeous art deco brick building, (likely filmed in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood, mecca of Jewish grandmas), Philip is greeted by a dolled-up blonde. Introduced simply as Louise, Philip asks “Who was that?”, when Earl replies that Louise is his mom. “You call your mom by her first name?”, he asks, wide-eyed and adorable. Earl shoves cookies into his mouth and then lets Philip look at his mother’s lingerie. It’s all kinds of fun 1940s mischief.
The rest of the episode sets up Philip’s cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle) as the young rabble rouser, a misguided no-goodnik with his heart in the right place. A powerful final sequence indicates trouble in his future, and a potential bad influence of Philip’s brother Sandy.
“The Plot Against America” gets off to an understated but compelling start, aided by a gorgeously rendered time period. This is no “Mrs. Maisel,” however. That would be entirely inappropriate. The design is mostly saturated in rich browns and muted grays, but there is still much to enjoy in the blue bubble letters of a vintage Esso sign, the angled-roof of the boys’ attic bedroom, and their half-cocked newsboy caps and yarmulkes. Anything brighter would feel too joyous, but the devil is in the details.
How Simon escalates the story, and just how close to home the series hits, is yet to be seen. But “The Plot Against America” is off to a promising beginning – if not in content, then in form.
“The Plot Against America” premieres on HBO on Monday, March 16 at 9 p.m. Eastern.
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