March 23, 2020

“The Plot Against America” (Episode One) Review: A Relevant and Engaging Introduction

In today’s age of competitive streaming services and premium television networks, HBO is held to a high standard as a reliable producer of intriguing and powerful original series and films. After the rocky ending of Game of Thrones, HBO has come back into the fray with strong series such as The Outsider, Avenue Five, and now, The Plot Against America.

Like most HBO dramas, The Plot Against America tackles intense and hard-hitting themes. It does it earnestly, though, without an obvious direction or path that will keep you glued to your television with cautionary involvement and rapt attention.

The Plot Against America is adapted from a Philip Roth novel which takes World War II’s history in a new direction. The premiere episode picks up in 1940, with Jewish insurance agent Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) and his family exploring their options as the country around them becomes more and more hostile towards their very presence. We’re introduced to Herman’s intense hatred towards anti-semite Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole), who ran for President against FDR in 1940. The twist comes when Lindbergh is actually elected, which, of course, did not actually happen in our nation’s history. Anything that comes after that is uncharted territory, and I am intrigued as to how the series will tackle it.

It’s very interesting to watch these major developments unfold from the perspective of a working-class Jewish family. The novel it’s based on is actually semi-autobiographical, portraying Roth’s own family, and is relatively true to life, if you dismiss the divergence in historical events. The producers of the series changed the family’s last name (from Roth to Levin) to give the show it’s own identity, and even though I haven’t read the novel, it seems to be a very unique series to me. I wonder how many changes were made from the book.

They have limited screen time, but the children are fun characters to watch.
Episode one very clearly sets up the plot lines that the show’s remaining five episodes will focus on, such as Herman’s nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) and his growing streak of anger against Germans, which turns violent at the end of the episode. We’re also introduced to Herman’s sister-in-law Evelyn (played by a cheerful Winona Ryder) and her quest for romance after her (married) boyfriend dumps her. She meets Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (a chilling John Turturro), who is pro-Lindbergh, which is sure to cause strife with the family dynamic in the remaining episodes. The fact that the opening episode mainly serves as an introduction wasn’t a bother, and it takes a good and careful approach to establishing characters, which is important for a character-driven story, which The Plot Against America is shaping up to be.

It’s a (sometimes painful) slow burn at the start, but the limited six-episode count undoubtedly means that the series will pick up soon enough. At points even in the first episode, it can prove to be difficult viewing, but it’s engaging nonetheless, with empathetic characters, strong acting and historical, yet topical, themes. [Grade: B]

Director: Minkie Spiro
Writer: Ed Burns and David Simon
Starring: Winona Ryder, Anthony Boyle, Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, John Turturro
Rated: TV-MA (violence, language)
Available: HBO Max
Fun Fact: Philip Roth was involved in the production of the show until his death in 2018. He is credited as an executive producer.

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