Now for something new that is premiering tonight, Monday March 16 on HBO: The Plot Against America. This six-episode HBO mini-series is based on the 2004 novel of the same name penned by American bestselling author Philip Roth. It imagines an alternative history where famed aviator Charles Lindbergh — who also happened to be a xenophobic populist — is wooed by the Republican Party and runs against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. Lindbergh wins, denying FDR a third term and turning America towards nationalism and fascism.
Huh, imagine that — a well-known non-politician somehow gets elected and sways a nation away from democracy. Sounds familiar, no?
Well, yes, very familiar agreed executive producer David Simon. The great TV storyteller behind The Wire had this to say about The Plot Against America back in January in Pasadena on the winter TCA press tour:
“I think it’s fairly apparent that the political paradigm that’s now — not only in America, but internationally you’re seeing it, in terms of populism and nationalism and the rise of xenophobia and fear of the other, that’s the reason this got made.”
Simon says he was pitched the idea of turning the book into a series right after President Obama was re-elected in 2012. He saw the novel then as “a nice little artifact” but considered it no longer very relevant.
“How wrong was I?” Simon asked critics.
The story is told through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey. Winnona Ryder, Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, Anthony Boyle and John Turturro are all in the cast.
I saw episode one and know enough about the talent involved (including director Tommy Schlamme) to recommend The Plot Against America. The press conference for this series was also one of the best at TCA last January, although sometimes the best sessions are not for the best TV shows.
One interesting side note was an answer given by co-star Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sleep”) at that session. It likely won’t translate here but Kazan gave a long answer when a reporter, who wished to be pardoned for “bringing up hard times,” asked, given Kazan’s family history, what did it mean to her to play this part?
“You’re not bringing up hard times for me,” said Kazan, “you’re bringing up hard times for our country.”
Kazan’s grandfather was acclaimed film director Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront,” “East of Eden”). He divided Hollywood and was never forgiven by some peers for naming names in the 1952 Communist witch hunt known as the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Some saw him as a career saving coward who threw talented friends under the bus. Kazan always maintained he was simply and reluctantly telling the truth about people, like himself, who were formerly associated with the American Communist party — names that had already been named.
Kazan, like her grandfather a Yale grad, went into some detail in her answer. She referenced a Hebrew phrase in “East of Eden” that had different translations, one of which was “thou mayest.”
“I have not wanted to weigh in on my family’s political history,” said Kazan, “partially because of the other people it involves in my family who have prized their privacy over a public life.”
What she had thought about, she continued, was “what it meant for my grandfather to have his Americanness tested and the choice that he made from that. And I thought a lot about my own choices that I’ve made, the way I choose to live my life. I think thou mayest choose a different life, and I think … it’s also about Americans choosing to recognize who they have been.”
She said much, much more. She ended by saying that working on the film, “was a profound experience … personally, politically, artistically. And I think that’s all I have to say about that.”
Said Simon: “I’ve been coming to TCAs now for about a decade. That was the best answer to a question. That was so cool. That had linguistics, that had like film history. That was gorgeous.”
You can watch The Plot Against America now live or on-demand on HBO but you can’t binge it yet; you have to wait every a week, the old fashioned way, to see all six episodes.