The premise of HBO's new miniseries The Plot Against America is an alternate history imagining what would happen if Charles Lindbergh, the famed pilot and Nazi sympathizer, defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 to become President of the United States. In the series, he uses his celebrity and an "America First" isolationist platform to rise to the most powerful office in the country, emboldening anti-Semites, xenophobes, and fascists. Jewish graves are desecrated, synagogues are burned, moderates cower and appease the powerful, and innocent families live in fear of deportation and being separated from their loved ones.
If this all sounds familiar, no shit—it could be a description of present-day America. Showrunner David Simon (The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce) and producer Ed Burns know this, which is why they decided to adapt Philip Roth's 2004 novel of the same name in 2020. HBO originally approached Simon to make the show a year after Obama's reelection, but he brushed off the idea, saying, "You're nuts. The country's going the other way… It's a nice artifact, but why would anyone make this now?" Donald Trump's election in 2016 changed Simon's mind. He recently told the Television Critics Association, "Anti-Semitism is resurgent in America, and great effort is being made to define people as 'less American.' The rise of xenophobia and fear of the other, that’s the reason this got made. The piece is incredibly relevant."
Roth's original work wasn't intended as a warning. The late author told The New Yorker in 2017, "I was just trying to imagine what it would have been like for a Jewish family like mine, in a Jewish community like Newark, had something even faintly like Nazi anti-Semitism befallen us in 1940… I wanted to imagine how we would have fared."
Though it's impossible to ignore the timely parallels from Roth's story in Simon's adaption, the six-episode series finds its power by grounding its ambitious narrative in its protagonists: the Levin family. Where other alternate-history TV shows like The Man In The High Castle and The Handmaid's Tale tackle authoritarianism with action-packed set-pieces, and violence that can verge on torture porn, The Plot Against America finds its terror of creeping fascism in the domestic and mundane.
The Levins—who in the novel were called the Roths, based on the author's own family—are a Jewish family who live a middle-class lifestyle in Newark. Patriarch Herman (Morgan Spector) is a Eugene Debs-loving FDR democrat and life insurance salesman, and his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) is the strong and supportive mother to children Philip (Marriage Story standout Azhy Robertson) and Sandy (Caleb Malis). They each cope with Lindbergh's political ascent, and the wave of anti-Semitism from his supporters, in increasingly different ways: Philip starts having nightmares; Sandy is surprisingly receptive to Lindbergh's message; rightfully terrified Bess aims to immediately flee to Canada; and Herman tries to keep the family in America, still believing in the country's ideals.
Simon is especially adept at showing the subtle ways a dangerous ideology can tear apart families. After the U.S. signs a peace treaty with the Third Reich, Herman's live-in nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) goes to Canada to go to war against the Nazis, while Bess' gullible naif sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) embraces the Lindbergh administration because she's dating the right-wing Southerner Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro). Due to his prominent political support, Lindbergh taps Bengelsdorf to head the Orwellian "Office of American Absorption" which first voluntarily sends Jewish teenagers, like Sandy Levin, to be Americanized by living on farms in the south and Midwest. (It goes without saying that these programs become less voluntary for minorities as the fascist leader becomes emboldened.)
The Plot Against America is terrifying because it magnifies the human stakes, finding its horror not entirely in Lindbergh and the fascists' awful policies, but in the Levins' helplessness when they realize how bad it's truly getting. An early episode finds Herman bemoaning Lindbergh's rise in the Republican party: “This is how it starts, with everyone thinking they can work with the guy. Like Hitler, everyone believes he doesn’t mean what he says.”
It's easy to draw parallels to one-time Trump supporters like Anthony Scaramucci who once said of the President: "don’t take him literally, take him symbolically." But unlike Lindbergh, Trump was never a galvanizing American figure: A stint as the boss from The Apprentice in the early 2000s is far less inspiring than when the Spirit of St. Louis made its first trans-continental flight in 1927.
Because Lindbergh is such a beloved historical figure, The Plot Against America details fascism that's harder to fight. With the tenuous present moment—which Roth couldn't have predicted when he wrote his novel—this miniseries goes even darker than its source material.
The Plot Against America airs March 16 on HBO.