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HBO’s ‘The Plot Against America’ is timely and sharp

John Tuturro in the HBO miniseries "The Plot Against America."Michele K. Short/HBO

There have been some terrifying, essential, and, unfortunately, timely miniseries of late. HBO’s “Chernobyl” is a look back at the specter of manmade disaster combined with disinformation. Netflix’s “When They See Us” recalls an egregious example of racism in the justice system. And HBO’s “Years and Years” delivers a what-if about the near future, the environment, and technology wrapped in the warm story of a British family.

OK, so this type of miniseries is not exactly the kind of programming that’s going to soothe coronavirus anxiety and sorrow. Still, TV doesn’t come any sharper, if you’re a student of life and its social, cultural, and political realities.


Joining the fright club is HBO’s “The Plot Against America,” an intense new six-part miniseries from David Simon and Ed Burns of “The Wire” that airs on Monday nights. I can’t remember seeing a period drama — it’s set from 1940 to 1942 — that speaks so directly and specifically to the present moment. If this vision of our country doesn’t seem creepily relevant to you, you’re probably not paying attention.

Based on the 2004 novel by the late Philip Roth, it’s an alternate history in which FDR loses the 1940 presidential election to Charles Lindbergh, the anti-Semitic and fascistic aviation hero who stirs up populist rage as he promises to keep us out of World War II. The clips of the American president on a stage beside Nazis, and of the American flag beside the Nazi flag, are only some of the many newsreel images in the miniseries that will make you shudder.

The growing anti-Semitism in the United States, enabled by the Lindbergh administration’s contempt for Jews, is shown through the experiences of the Levin family (modeled after Roth’s) of Newark. “They’ve always been here,” one character says about anti-Semites in America. “Now they have permission to crawl out from under their rocks.” The parents, the outspoken Herman (Morgan Spector) and the quieter but wise Bess (Zoe Kazan), have different styles but, ultimately, the same values as they try to protect the family. Preteen son Phillip (Azhy Robertson) is an innocent kid who suffers growing anxiety about the state of the country, while the teenage Sandy (Caleb Malis) exhibits a disturbing naiveté about Lindbergh and his moves against the Jews.


There’s not a bum performance in the bunch, with Kazan and Anthony Boyle, as Herman’s nephew, particularly outstanding. Winona Ryder, as Bess’s lonely sister, and John Turturro as a Southern rabbi who tries to work with Lindbergh, are also quite effective, as they ignorantly opt for trust and optimism in a time of mass deception.

“The Plot Against America” is indelible piece of work about how politics reaches into personal lives.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.