Never has escape and distraction meant more than it does right now—surely everyone is looking for a new TV series they can sink into? Thankfully, HBO is debuting two dramas tonight, and both are throwbacks to what used to be called “prestige TV,” a time of high-gloss, high-quality cable television dramas that HBO itself pioneered with The Sopranos over 20 years ago. The fact that that era seems to be shifting—with HBO’s former CEO Richard Plepler decamping to Apple TV+ and Netflix starting to sunset high-budget shows like The Crown even as they pump out disposable curiosities like Love Is Blind—makes the debut of tonight’s two shows especially poignant.
My only question is which will you like more? Both The Plot Against America and the second season of My Brilliant Friend are extremely faithful period literary adaptations—but that is where the comparison ends. These shows have strikingly different tones and moods. I have my preference, but what a treat it is to be able to have them both to choose from.
The Plot Against America
Writer-producer David Simon’s output since The Wire has been fascinating: Treme, Show Me a Hero, and The Deuce (all on HBO), all the types of series that come from a talent with nothing to prove. They have been lived-in, thoughtful, sometimes meandering stories that earn your admiration more than keep you on the edge of your seat. His new series, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, feels like compensation, like a star player coming out of the dugout to take a big swing.
And it’s a risky one. Roth’s novels produce notoriously unsatisfying adaptations, but Plot—a counter-history set in New Jersey in the early forties America under a president Charles Lindbergh—is as close to a dystopian thriller as anything Roth wrote. Simon and his co-writer Ed Burns have created a series that is worthy in feel, burnished with an old-fashioned Hollywood ‘40s light, and actually feels a bit old-fashioned too. This is an earnest, four-square, if extremely well-made, melodrama. At its center are the Levins, a middle-class family in New Jersey who are horrified by the political good fortune of the aviation-hero Lindbergh who wins the presidency by pledging to keep America out of the war brewing in Europe—while seeding anti-semitic sentiment along the way. Herman, the patriarch of the family, as played by Morgan Spector is particularly outraged, in a performance that for me swerved into stagey rectitude. The other actors are better, and especially the women—Winona Ryder as Herman’s sister-in-law who falls under the sway of the Lindberg apologist Rabbi Bengelsdorf and Zoe Kazan who turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as Herman’s wife Elizabeth.