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

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!

HBO’s Chernobyl.


So, who wants to watch that new series on Cher­nobyl”, has to be pret­ty much the least entic­ing invi­ta­tion imag­in­able. And yet, remark­ably, HBO’s Cher­nobyl is com­fort­ably the most excit­ing and the most bril­liant­ly realised tele­vi­sion series of the last four or five years. 

On one lev­el, this oughtn’t to have been a sur­prise. We all know, at least in the­o­ry, that sto­ries have noth­ing to do with their unadorned con­tent, and depend entire­ly for their suc­cess on how they are told. The base mate­r­i­al is irrel­e­vant, what mat­ters is how they are mould­ed into being.

Mad Men.

After all, who wants to watch a series in which the police depart­ment of a non­de­script, US city tries to deal with its inner city drug prob­lem, and all the social issues that that cre­ates? Or one about a bunch of priv­i­leged, white, most­ly unpleas­ant mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als, wor­ried about what to spend their inflat­ed salaries on, and who next to be unfaith­ful with, at the turn of the 1960s? And yet.

Nev­er­the­less, the prospect of spend­ing five, hour-long episodes watch­ing the Sovi­et Union deal­ing poor­ly with the acci­dent at one of its nuclear pow­er plants in Ukraine, in 1986, was an espe­cial­ly unap­peal­ing one. How wrong I was.

Jared Har­ris in Cher­nobyl.

The first mis­take was to assume that I knew what the sto­ry had been. Like, I imag­ine, the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple, I actu­al­ly knew next to noth­ing about what had actu­al­ly hap­pened at Cher­nobyl. And the first thing to say is that Cher­nobyl is metic­u­lous­ly, indeed exhaus­tive­ly researched. Because of which, it con­stant­ly surprises. 

But even more impres­sive is how cin­e­mat­ic it is. There is a visu­al con­fi­dence and ambi­tion to the direct­ing that match­es the ten­sion and dra­ma cre­at­ed by the script. So that episodes fre­quent­ly nod to some of the gen­res that have most suc­cess­ful­ly pop­u­lat­ed our screens of late, like the zom­bie flick and hor­ror in general. 

The eeri­ly desert­ed streets of Pripyat.

But when you see the eeri­ly desert­ed city streets in episode 2, it’s ren­dered gen­uine­ly unnerv­ing because you know that this is not some genre piece. This is what actu­al­ly hap­pened to the city of Pripy­at. Its 50,000 inhab­i­tants were forcibly evac­u­at­ed in less than two days. And that crea­ture in the bed is not some fiendish ghoul or invad­ing extra ter­res­tri­al, it’s a human being in the lat­er stages of extreme radi­a­tion sickness. 

There are a con­stant stream of won­der­ful­ly sub­tle, visu­al flour­ish­es. As we leave on one of the myr­i­ad bus­es that are trans­port­ing the peo­ple of Pripy­at to God knows where, a dog bounds down the street behind us. Someone’s fam­i­ly pet is try­ing for­lorn­ly to join them and jump on board. 

That non­de­script US city police depart­ment show. 

As – the excel­lent – Jared Har­ris steps up to give his evi­dence at the tri­al that the series cul­mi­nates with, the cam­era drunk­en­ly tilts in slo mo. Par­tial­ly, this is because his own radi­a­tion sick­ness has begun to kick in, and par­tial­ly this is a reflec­tion of his ner­vous­ness at the prospect of hav­ing to give evi­dence at a Sovi­et show tri­al. But they refrain from lin­ger­ing on this tricksi­ness, and they quick­ly move on to the evi­dence itself. 

Noth­ing is over­done, and every­thing is exact­ly as it should be, which is what makes it such a tri­umph. And its direc­tor, Johan Renck, and writer, Craig Mazin, are names to be watched. 

You can see the trail­er for Cher­nobyl 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!

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!

Series 6 “Mad Men”, Drugs and a Rare High.

Twin Peaks' dream sequence.

Twin Peaks’ dream sequence.

In ret­ro­spect, the arrival of Twin Peaks onto our screens in 1990 changed every­thing. On the one hand it explod­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ties of what a tele­vi­sion series could aim for and encom­pass. And on the oth­er, it marked the begin­ning of what would become a com­plete exo­dus of seri­ous, grown-up pop­ulist dra­ma from cin­e­ma onto television.

The exquisite At The Height Of Summer.

The exquis­ite At The Height Of Summer.

You can still see seri­ous dra­ma in the cin­e­ma. Films from Atom Egoy­an, Asghar Farha­di reviewed ear­li­er here, Julio Medem, Jafar Panahi reviewed ear­li­er here, Lynne Ram­say, Tod Solondz, and Tran Anh Hung. And of course David Lynch. But they are very much the excep­tions. The vast major­i­ty of what is on offer these days at the cin­e­ma is aimed at teenage boys and pubes­cent girls.

Tele­vi­sion on the oth­er hand has pro­duced, to pick but four of a long, long list, The Sopra­nos, The Wire, Mad Men and Break­ing Bad. And it all began with Twin Peaks, which was the prece­dent, the blue­print, and the inspi­ra­tion for them all.

Of the many, many things that Twin Peaks did so effort­less­ly well, the one thing that most peo­ple prob­a­bly think of is dreams. Specif­i­cal­ly, the dream sequence that so mem­o­rably end­ed the sec­ond episode.

Lynch got his actors to mem­o­rize and say their lines back­wards, which he filmed, and then reversed in the edit­ing suite. Sim­i­lar­ly, he got them to per­form some of their actions – but cru­cial­ly not all of them – in the same way. It’s daz­zling­ly unset­tling, and you can see it again here.

Lynch has always had a sen­sa­tion­al han­dle on dreams. David Thomp­son astute­ly writes in his entry on Mul­hol­land Dr. that the Dr of the title refers not to Dri­ve but to dream here. It’s strik­ing how often dream crops up in the dia­logue. And his career began of course with the all too con­vinc­ing por­tray­al of a liv­ing night­mare in Eraser­head.

So intim­i­dat­ed was David Chase by Lynch and his facil­i­ty with dreams that he was ren­dered cre­ative­ly pet­ri­fied. Dreams are the one thing that The Sopra­nos failed to daz­zle on.

If Chase is the tele­vi­su­al son of Lynch, then Matthew Wein­er is his spir­i­tu­al grand­child. But Mad Men has most­ly avoid­ed dreams. What it’s done instead is to tack­le the one area that’s even more dif­fi­cult to get right than dreams; drugs.

Mad Men.

Mad Men.

After all, at least in the­o­ry, anything’s pos­si­ble in dreams. But for any­one who’s ever tak­en opi­ates, amphet­a­mines or hal­lu­cino­gen­ics, there’s only ever one way that that looks or feels. And it’s cringe-induc­ing to watch when­ev­er any­one tries and gets it wrong.

Impres­sive­ly, on the few occa­sions that drugs have sur­faced in Mad Men, they’ve got it bril­liant­ly right. There was that brief scene in series 2 when Don had his – and the show’s – first joint. There’s was the just­ly cel­e­brat­ed scene in series 5 when Roger does LSD here.

And now in series 6, there’s a whole episode, 8 The Crash, when a Dr. Roberts type fig­ure gives Don and the rest on the cre­ative team a shot each of speed. I’ll not spoil any­thing by giv­ing any of it away, but it cap­tures per­fect­ly that mis­placed sense of cer­tain­ty that some drugs cause you to fix on oth­er­wise mean­ing­less ephemera. And it’s absolute­ly, and hor­ri­bly hilarious.

Series 6 is cur­rent­ly hid­den away in the depths of RTE2’s  Tues­day night sched­ule, like a for­mer hip­pies’ final acid tab buried deep in a secret draw.

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

Masters Of Sex” and the death of the Soap Opera.

Masters Of Sex.

Mas­ters Of Sex.

The Sopra­nos, Break­ing Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, Home­land, The Shield, The Killing, The Returned reviewed here, Top Boy reviewed here, our own Love/Hate, 24, Board­walk Empire, Dead­wood, House Of Cards, Six Feet Under, Lost, Game Of Thrones, Glee, Buffy, and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. reviewed here.

They all give us believ­able char­ac­ters in a rec­og­niz­able world that you real­ly want to invest your time in. Because what they are all about is the rela­tion­ships that are forged between the indi­vid­u­als who live there, and the bril­liant­ly told sto­ries that con­nect them and bring them all into conflict.

In oth­er words, they all do what soaps used to do in days gone by. Except they’re much, much bet­ter writ­ten, act­ed, direct­ed and produced.

Mad Men.

Mad Men.

Which isn’t mere­ly because they all have far more mon­ey to spend than a con­ven­tion­al soap ever did. Rather, it’s a reflec­tion of the rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion that tele­vi­sion had under­gone over the last decade or so. It’s part of what’s come to be called box set cul­ture.

Tele­vi­sion pro­grammes have to be so good today, that they demand to be seen on our ever larg­er and loud­er tele­vi­sion sets. So that down­load­ing them or stream­ing them onto your phone just isn’t going to be enough.

Not only that, they have to be so good, so remark­able, and to gen­er­ate so much talk and inter­est, so much noise,  that you’re going to feel an uncon­trol­lable urge to buy the box set and watch them all again. So good in fact, that when then they’re all repeat­ed, repeat­ed­ly on cable and satel­lite, you’ll hap­pi­ly watch them all again.

On the job.

On the job.

The lat­est in the cur­rent line of Olympian tele­vi­sion is Mas­ters of Sex. Based on a rev­o­lu­tion­ary study into sex­u­al mores and mechan­ics in the late 50s and 60s, it revolves around Michael Sheen as the sex­u­al­ly prud­ish but sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly dri­ven doc­tor, and the part­ner­ship he strikes up with the sex­u­al­ly lib­er­at­ed but com­plete­ly unqual­i­fied Lizzy Caplan, who he takes on as his assistant.

He by the way is called Mas­ters, and she Vir­ginia. Which could eas­i­ly have been an exam­ple of how clev­er­ly yet sim­ply the dif­fer­ent dynam­ics of sex­u­al pol­i­tics are delved into and invert­ed on the show. But that real­ly was what they were called.

In many ways, it’s lit­tle more than Mad Men lite. But it’s so well act­ed and writ­ten, and the sto­ries and their arcs are so care­ful­ly and clev­er­ly plot­ted, and it and they all look so fan­tas­tic – soft porn has rarely looked as plush, lush and refined – that you hap­pi­ly sit back, relax and let it all wash over you.

One more rea­son to stay in of an eve. And one more nail in the Soap Opera cof­fin.  You can see the Mas­ters of Sex trail­er here.

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