The emotional high point on HBO’s new limited series “The Plot Against America” comes when Herman (Morgan Spector) the father of a family of Jews in an increasingly anti-Semitic 1940s America, has been pushed past his limit by the bullying of his countrymen, including a fellow restaurant patron trying to intimidate him. The series, like the 2004 Philip Roth novel on which it is based, narrates an alternate history in which a President Charles Lindbergh appeases Adolf Hitler and gives rhetorical cover to prejudice stateside. This unhappy new era of mistrust is cemented by Herman’s having been harassed; as if to make an argument for the best of a disappearing America, Herman recalls a sentimental if slightly kitschy tune about the Wabash River, and stands to croon, ultimately humiliating the bigot who’d harassed him and earning a round of applause from the rest of the restaurant.
This incident establishes Herman, not for the first time, as a pillar of strength and wisdom with a unique ability to silence cruelty, if only for a moment. It makes for an instructive contrast with the novel on which “The Plot Against America” is based — Roth’s 2004 vision of Nazism finding purchase on our shores — in which Herman still sings the song, but in a brief scene that Roth pointedly notes is met with “no applause” but that of one sympathetic waiter, and ends when the family quickly trundles out of the restaurant. Roth’s novel depicts ordinary people lost in the tide of history, struggling to stay afloat. HBO’s series, co-created by David Simon and Ed Burns, insists, instead, that its characters are indeed history’s protagonists.
Because much of the breathlessly rushed story in the early going will be hard to comprehend for those who haven’t read the novel, Roth’s work provides a yardstick. His book uses the device of recollected childhood: All information comes to us from an adult Roth narrating conversations he heard or news developments as he understood them in his (fictionalized) youth in Newark. Here, both Philip (Azhy Robertson) and his brother Sandy (Caleb Malis) are present, and their respective ways for understanding their changing nation — Philip through his stamp collection, Sandy through drawing figures from the news — are represented, at least, if so flickeringly as to seem more like Easter eggs for book readers than like keys to the sons’ consciousness. But the uncertainty and haze imposed by a child’s understanding of a rapidly shifting world isn’t plainspoken enough for Simon and Burns’s version of the story.
Shifting the focus from young Philip and his brother to their parents (their mother is played by Zoe Kazan) creates space for insistent monologuing from Herman, who has the great story advantage of being perceptive, far-seeing, and almost always right about how everything ahead is going to break. (When he’s wrong, as in agreeing to send Sandy for a summer-long repatriation workshop, it’s at least for the right reasons — in this case, his faith in his fellow Americans to help raise his son right.) Their counterparts are Bess’s sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) and her eventual beau Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a powerful rabbi who insinuates them both into the cold heart of Lindbergh administration. Lionel and Evelyn display shameless self-regard in boosting their own fortunes by being, effectively, Lindbergh’s Jews-in-chief — the two whose presence in White House, encouraged by a smoothly insincere First Lady Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Caroline Kaplan), allows gentiles to feel good about their president’s embrace of Hitler.
That the show’s parallels to the present moment — in this case, to our own president’s Jewish daughter and son-in-law, swooning over State Dinner invitations as they ignore dog-whistles towards a constituency fueled by hate — are obvious does not recommend “The Plot Against America,” exactly, but can’t be held against it either. The Trump era is so thuddingly obvious that its being applicable to any depiction possible of noxious egocentrism comes as no surprise. The show’s shift to suit our times comes less in subject matter than in angle of approach: A story first written amid the mindless jingoism of the George W. Bush era to depict its characters as sadly estranged from agency turns them, in the personality-forward Trump age, into larger-than-life icons of cruelty or of steadfastness.
This does more than just flatten out the performances, though it does that too. Ryder, so perpetually good from “The Age of Innocence” to “Stranger Things” at playing a character who understands more than she’s perceived to, is too big by half as she jauntily dances into doom, ignoring even the loudest portents — among them Turturro’s yet-more-exaggerated obsequiousness. Kazan is strong, if conscripted largely to gather herself steelily to help her family; Spector’s paeans to the strength of America and his relentless, florid critique of its leadership worked on the page as a child’s memory of a heroic father, but reads onscreen as beyond credibility.
This all works against the elemental pull of the story. The characters in “The Plot Against America” are a family of un-extraordinary people living in extraordinary times. Herman meeting the moment perpetually with a sort of aphoristic wisdom is one kind of superpower; the family’s protracted entanglement, at a distance of hundreds of miles, with the federal government is another. The one character who stays human-scale is cousin Alvin, who goes to fight in Europe even if his nation won’t and returns, wounded and humbled; he’s sidelined, though, from much of the series.
By contrast: The recent, magnificent limited series “Years and Years” told the story of a family caught up in events they could not fight; their being forced to endure radical change even as their own personal stories went on — babies arriving, marriages evolving, the rest of the stuff of life — made for the stuff of painful, real art. But that series was British, made in a nation that has spent decades watching its dominance on the world stage wane. A slow apocalypse is, perhaps, nothing new.
Made about and for a nation accustomed to setting the terms of history, “The Plot Against America” is a show that not only believes in national exceptionalism but believes its characters exceptional. As such, it has room for applauding its own characters or showing them at their most dastardly; it fails to make them convincingly exist outside of their reactions to Lindbergh, the center of their universe. That it can’t fit in the probing curiosity of its children characters — sidelined utterly, non-factors in the show’s God’s-eye view of the conversations between its adults — comes as no surprise. This is a show that, even as it depicts a precarious moment and exists in one, cannot bear uncertainty. That’s a tendency that makes it both a fairly unpleasant watch, and a sacrificed opportunity to depict something smaller, more tender, and more ultimately human than the end of the world.