As millions of Americans remain stuck at home with little to do, figuring out what to watch has become a priority. Netflix’s “Tiger King” has been touted thus far as the defining series of the quarantine, and it’s easy to see why. Despite its more serious messages on animal abuse and the corrupting influence of fame, viewers have latched onto the ridiculous conflicts of its colorful cast of characters as a simple form of escapism amidst the real-world concerns of disease and joblessness. When the news is filled with stories about the overcrowding of hospitals and shocking government incompetence, watching Joe Exotic’s idiotic murder-for-hire plot against his rival in the private zoo business unfold is a welcome alternative.
While I enjoy the “Tiger King” as much as the next person, I believe that if there is one show you are going to watch right now, that would be David Simon and Ed Burns’s new HBO miniseries “The Plot Against America.”
Based on the 2004 novel by Philip Roth, the series postulates what would have happened if famed aviator Charles Lindbergh ran against President Franklin Roosevelt in the election of 1940 and won, thus becoming the 33rd President of the United States.
So, why should this premise interest anyone? In 1940, Europe was embroiled in the Second World War. At this point, Germany appeared to be unstoppable and the United States had yet to join in. Charles Lindbergh, meanwhile, was an American hero who set new records for air travel and received the Medal of Honor. He was also a suspected Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite. How would history change if such a man were elected at this vital moment in human history? Considering the implications of this question make for some of the most riveting television you will see all year.
Instead of focusing on Lindbergh and the political interactions between the world powers, the series cleverly follows the story of a struggling Jewish family — the Levins — in Newark, New Jersey. By having the spotlight on a more relatable cast of characters, we are more easily able to grasp the implications of what could have happened if the dark cloud of facism had infected the top position in this country.
As is to be expected with any of David Simon’s shows, “The Plot Against America” features outstanding performances across the board. In the Levin family, we have Zoe Kazan (from “The Big Sick”) as Elizabeth Levin, Morgan Spector (“Homeland”) as her husband Herman, Anothony Boyle (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) as nephew Alvin and child actors Azhy Robertson and Caleb Malis as sons Philip and Sandy. The series also features Winona Ryder (“Stranger Things”) as Elizabeth’s sister Evelyn and John Tuturro (“The Big Lebowski”) as Evelyn’s partner, Rabbi Bengelsdorf. It is a testament to the show’s casting that, despite having big-name cast members like Ryder and Tuturro, everyone is able to shine. The performances feel authentic and grounded without ever giving the impression of acting.
Where the series’ true strength lies is in its ability to make us contemplate what it means to be an American. For this reason, I can think of no one who could have crafted this story better than David Simon. Without a doubt, I would say Simon is the definitive voice of American television. Each one of his shows presents viewers with a unique time and place in American culture, and yet we see the same themes repeated across time, race, age, sexual orientation and gender.
“Treme” (2010-13) places us in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina and shows the resilience of ordinary people in rebuilding a culture they love. “The Deuce” (2017-19) gives insight into the lives of sex workers and AIDS victims in the 1970s and ’80s. The greatest of all is “The Wire” (2002-08) which I would not only call my favorite television show but also one of the all-time best American artistic achievements. “The Wire” presents a complex look at the city of Baltimore through its law enforcement, criminals, schools, politicians, news media, working class and the people caught in the middle of it all.
“The Plot Against America” follows in this strong tradition, this time asking us to consider life in America through the eyes of a marginalized minority. The series makes strong parallels between the plight of Jewish Americans in its alternate history scenario and Latin Americans in the modern day. Both are scapegoated by a racist federal government which preys upon our worst impulses to deny empathy to those who are different. Just like the hardworking immigrants from Central and South America who form the backbone of our economy, the Levin family is staunchly patriotic and loyal, yet they must watch helplessly as their country is taken from them.
Instead of providing escapism through its fictional premise, the show causes viewers to consider our own political moment and the consequences of our actions. With everything going on the world, people may want to avoid this sort of confrontational style in favor of shows that offer more lighthearted fun, but “The Plot Against America” reminds us that complacency is not an option for many in this country. When their existence is politicized, the only option is to fight for what is fair and just in the face of oppression and bigotry. The show reminds us that, whatever the actions of the government, the true threat is those who turn a blind eye to the suffering of their countrymen.
This is without a doubt the best show I have seen this year and I cannot recommend it highly enough. There is so much more I could say about the richness of this series, but I think you should discover that for yourselves. The show is on HBO and is only 6 hour-long episodes. Once your exams are over and you have an excess of free time, this should be the first thing on your watchlist.
Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.