Did you happen to see “The Plot Against America,” which wrapped up on Monday? The six-episode HBO miniseries from David Simon and Ed Burns, based on the novel by Philip Roth, is extraordinary, masterful TV. The story, an alternative history that makes Charles Lindbergh the president in 1940 and sees the rise in fascism and anti-Semitism in the United States, is chilling and resonant. We see how the political shifts permanently alter the life of a New Jersey family, featuring remarkable turns by Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, John Turturro, Winona Ryder, and Anthony Boyle.
Of course, it being from Simon, the creator of a list of series and miniseries that have not gotten their due, “The Plot Against America” and the cast could wind up in the “Snubbed” category when the awards season swings around in all its fickleness. Somehow, “The Wire,” which many feel is among the top series of TV’s so-called Golden Era, received only two Emmy nominations during its five-season run, for best writing. Not a single actor from this show packed with rich, authentic, and indelible performances — by Idris Elba, Andre Royo, Aidan Gillen, Michael K. Williams, and Dominic West, to name only a few — got nominated. At the same time, “The Sopranos” was tripping over all its statues.
Simon’s “Treme” and “Generation Kill” did get a few nods, but “The Deuce” and “Show Me a Hero,” both beautifully done and highly original, were completely ignored by Emmy voters. What’s up with that? Some theories:
For one thing, Simon is captivated by the kind of real-life socioeconomic themes that are — how should I put this? — unpleasant. They’re often about institutional dysfunction in America and the hard lives of those on the streets, and that kind of subject matter could be a turnoff for voters steeped in the world of entertainment and more inclined toward escape. The shows are so much richer than they sound in summaries, with lots of great characters who put faces on all the statistics, but on paper they may sound too gritty. Social realism is not awards-magnet material. Also, Simon helped usher in an adult form of storytelling that refuses to pander to the viewer. He doesn’t introduce characters in an EZ fashion; he lets us figure out their relationships to one another over time. It can take a little bit of effort. And while his work is sometimes compared to that of Dickens for its social sprawl and concern for the poor, he refuses to provide audiences with Dickensian sentimentality and happy endings. His style may be too complex and cool for voters who’d prefer to be walked step by step through the action.
Finally, Simon’s work is on HBO, and that could be a problem during awards season. Voters may not want to give too many nominations to any single outlet, and other HBO shows may have taken up that unspoken allowance. Simon’s series aren’t big ratings hits, so, sadly, voters might feel easier about ignoring them.