HBO’s ‘The Plot Against America’

The Plot Against America.

What you think about the HBO adap­ta­tion of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against Amer­i­ca will depend on whether or not the name David Simon means any­thing to you.

If you’ve nev­er heard of him, then you will very prob­a­bly find the six part mini-series per­fect­ly divert­ing. Roth’s nov­el imag­ines a dystopi­an, coun­ter­fac­tu­al past in which FDR does not win his third term in 1940, and is instead defeat­ed by the celebri­ty du jour and would-be fas­cist Charles Lind­bergh.

John Tur­tur­ro and Winona Ryder are intro­duced to the erst­while first lady. 

Lind­bergh helped set up The Amer­i­ca First Com­mit­tee to pro­mote Amer­i­can iso­la­tion­ism and keep them out of the Sec­ond World War. Cham­pi­oning white suprema­cy and blam­ing the Jews for try­ing to involve Amer­i­ca in a Euro­pean fra­cas, he not only refused to con­demn the Nazis, he’d trav­elled to Ger­many in 1938 where he was award­ed, and proud­ly accept­ed, the Ser­vice Cross of the Ger­man Eagle from Her­mann Göring.

So it’s not hard to see what drew Simon to the source mate­r­i­al. But, dis­ap­point­ing­ly, the series fails ulti­mate­ly to take flight. And it fails on two counts. 

The gang’s all there, The Wire.

First, as every school­boy knows, the best books make the worst films. And what works so well in the nov­el is the way in which Roth gets inside the young Philip’s head to give us a child’s‑eye view of the world he finds him­self in. So that the polit­i­cal back­drop is pre­cise­ly that, a backdrop.

The book’s one fail­ing, with­out wish­ing to give any­thing away, is that rather than move towards a dra­mat­ic crescen­do, plot wise, it just sort of fiz­zles out. 


Nec­es­sar­i­ly, in order to visu­alise the book, the pro­gramme mak­ers decid­ed to flesh out the polit­i­cal sub-plots in lieu of being able to drama­tise what is essen­tial­ly an inner mono­logue. But all that does is to high­light how lit­er­ary the nov­el is, and how impos­si­ble it was always going to be to try to adapt it for the screen.

Sec­ond, and very sur­pris­ing­ly, it is, dia­logue-wise, incred­i­bly clunky. Every­body says exact­ly that they are think­ing, and char­ac­ters are for­ev­er spout­ing expo­si­tion and telling us, in case we missed it, what to think.

One episode begins with the father ask­ing his friend why the local police aren’t pro­tect­ing the Jews from the neigh­bour­hood vig­i­lantes. To which he replies: 

Not many Jews on the Newark Police Force.”

But that shouldn’t be the point”, the father says earnest­ly, empha­sis­ing the word shouldn’t, in case we’d missed it’s import. And so on.

What’s so espe­cial­ly dis­ap­point­ing about this is that this is the pro­gramme mak­er and the team who brought us The Wire. Rarely had dia­logue been less on the nose.

There isn’t space here to look in more detail at what Simon has done since then. Suf­fice it to say, his out­put sub­se­quent­ly has looked increas­ing­ly con­ser­v­a­tive, and The Wire is look­ing more and more like some­thing of an anomaly. 

Show Me A Hero.

After The Wire and Treme, skip­ping del­i­cate­ly over Gen­er­a­tion Kill, the con­ser­vatism of Show Me A Hero, reviewed ear­li­er here, came across as refresh­ing. But The Deuce, not with­stand­ing its sub­ject mat­ter, was every bit as con­ven­tion­al. And now this.

All of which is a shame. Because the show is actu­al­ly pret­ty good at imag­in­ing what it must be like for mem­bers of a minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty to live their nor­mal lives, as the coun­try they think of as their own turns inex­plic­a­bly against them.

This Plot Against Amer­i­ca isn’t a bad show. The dia­logue is no more clunky than in the vast major­i­ty of shows you’re like­ly to sit through. And it looks every bit as rav­ish­ing as you’d expect of a mod­ern day peri­od piece. But I do hope we’re not going to have to re-eval­u­ate Simon’s out­put. The medi­um needs its heroes.

You can see the trail­er for The Plot Against Amer­i­ca here

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New David Simon series “Show Me A Hero”.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. pho­to cred­it: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

David Simon read Show Me A Hero by New York Times jour­nal­ist Lisa Belkin in 2001, and imme­di­ate­ly approached HBO about adapt­ing it for tele­vi­sion. But he got side­tracked with the phe­nom­e­nal­ly suc­cess­ful and just­ly laud­ed The Wire, and then by Gen­er­a­tion Kill and Treme. So it’s only now that Show Me a Hero has final­ly made it to our screens.

As soon as he heard it was going ahead, Paul Hag­gis signed on as direc­tor with­out hav­ing to see any of the scripts before­hand. And it’s not hard to see what might have drawn him to it, apart of course from the obvi­ous fact that it was Simon’s lat­est venture.

Hag­gis wrote and direct­ed Crash in 2004, which explores the com­plex­i­ties of race and colour bril­liant­ly, and could have been even bet­ter if only they’d held out against tack­ing hap­py end­ings on to a cou­ple of its storylines.



One of the first things that leaps out at you when you start watch­ing Show Me A Hero is its appar­ent art­less­ness. A great deal of time and effort has been invest­ed in ren­der­ing it entire­ly trans­par­ent. So that instead of using the medi­um to mir­ror the sub­ject mat­ter, as they did with the amphet­a­mine fuelled fid­get­ing of The Wire, and the laid back lan­guid south­ern rhythms of Treme, what we get here is the audi­ence as fourth wall.

So the late 80s that the sto­ry is set in is seen not as the sort of styl­ized, immac­u­late­ly dressed era that some­thing like Mad Men would have pre­sent­ed it as. Rather, it looks and feels exact­ly as it did when you were actu­al­ly liv­ing in it. Utter­ly, unfor­giv­ably vile, and cheap in a some­how expen­sive way. That hair, those shoul­der pads, and the way that every­thing, even the archi­tec­ture, all looks thin, insub­stan­tial and devoid of any real depth.

The Wire.

The Wire.

The sto­ry cen­tres around Nick Wasic­sko who became the youngest may­or in Amer­i­ca when tak­ing up the reins at Yonkers, a sub­urb of New York City and a city in its own right with­in the larg­er state. For 5 or 6 years in the late 80s, its res­i­dents were up in arms over the social hous­ing devel­op­ment that was being forced upon them against their wishes.

What’s par­tic­u­lar­ly impres­sive is that Simon man­ages to keep his lib­er­al sym­pa­thies in check with­out ever let­ting you lose sight of them. He focus­es instead on show­ing us the mul­ti­fac­eted com­plex­i­ties that lie behind all appar­ent­ly black and white issues.

There’s a rea­son the res­i­dents of Yonkers are so dead set against allow­ing pub­lic hous­ing units allo­cat­ed to black fam­i­lies into their area. Wher­ev­er that had been done before, the build­ings that result­ed all too quick­ly devel­oped into Sty­gian cen­tres for drugs and pros­ti­tu­tion, and the orga­ni­za­tion­al ful­crum for a net­work of pet­ty, and not so pet­ty crime.

Pro­po­nents of the scheme, which Wasis­cko inad­ver­tent­ly came to front, said that that was only because of the way that those kinds of things had been han­dled in the past. That this scheme would be dif­fer­ent (which, unusu­al­ly, it was), and that in any case, they were only talk­ing about a pal­try 200 hous­ing units.



I’ll not say any­thing more, oth­er than that I just about man­aged to avoid look­ing up what the actu­al out­come was, so drawn in was I with the sto­ry, and so should you. But if you rec­og­nize the Fitzger­ald quote, or know the book, you’ll know that the full quote is Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.

You can see the trail­er to Show Me A Hero here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!