HBO’s The Plot Against America is perfect for our time

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth’s novel, the source for the HBO series – Wolf Gang via Flickr

The Plot Against America, a six-episode miniseries that started airing on HBO on March 16, is one of the most important television shows of the year. Originally a novel of the same name by Phillip Roth, the story was adapted into a breathtakingly dramatic TV show by experienced writers David Simon and Ed Burns, who have collaborated before on shows including The Wire, The Corner, and Generation Kill.

     The Plot Against America depicts a frightening alternate history of the United States during World War II, imparting a message that couldn’t be more relevant today: that the current state of our politics is not only divisive, but also dangerous and could lead to unforeseen horror.

     The alternate history of The Plot Against America imagines a world in which Charles Lindbergh, the American aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer who rose to fame after making the first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927, uses his national influence to run for president and defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election. The show follows a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, the Levins, as President Lindbergh stokes anti-Semitism in America and embraces the “America First” ideology, keeping the United States neutral in World War II.

     The beauty of the show is that it gradually strays further and further from history, making the storyline seem distant from what we know while remaining entirely plausible. The Levins are initially portrayed as a typical American, middle-class family, their Jewish identity more cultural than religious. Their loyalty is singularly towards America, and yet they face accusations of being “un-American.” The father of the family, played masterfully by Morgan Spector, is especially vocal about his devotion to America and he becomes increasingly disheartened as the country he loves slowly abandons the words “all men are created equal” and embraces anti-Semitism. 

     The New York Times commented Roth’s novel: “You turn the pages, astonished and frightened.” 

The Plot Against America – Charles Lindbergh, circa 1927 – Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

     The dramatic writing in the show, coupled with stellar acting, allows for the same to be true of the miniseries. As each episode goes on, the story grows more intriguing and horrifying, culminating in a spectacular final episode that brings the storyline together.

Are some citizens more “American” than others? Are some religions more “American” than others? Races? Ethnicities? Languages? 

     The Plot Against America is one of the most important shows of the year because, even as it tells a story of the past, it also addresses the problems of modern America. The show analyzes the question of what makes an American.

     In the show, the government feels that the Levins and other Jews need to be further “integrated” into American society. Are some citizens more “American” than others? Are some religions more “American” than others? Races? Ethnicities? Languages? 

     At this time in our country’s history, these same questions that The Plot Against America addresses are at the heart of our national conflicts, yet with different groups of people bearing the brunt of a hateful, scapegoating society. What happens when America turns minority communities into second class citizens, claiming they aren’t “American” enough? The Plot Against America shows exactly what unfolds in that reality, and it’s horrifying to watch.