It may feel like the wrong time to binge-watch a 6-part series chronicling all that goes wrong when the U.S. elects an “America First”-centric celebrity as POTUS. But HBO’s The Plot Against America, with scenes shot in Maplewood as well as many familiar locations in neighboring Newark, is well worth the watching.
The David Simon and Ed Burns production (The Wire, Generation Kill) hews closely to Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name. The author imagines a dystopian alternative history, hypothesizing what would have happened to the country if Charles Augustus Lindbergh had run for office and defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940. Roth takes Lindbergh’s historical affiliation with the America First movement of his time, his anti-war stance, and his anti-Semitism, and extrapolates that into a Presidency that capitulates to Hitler, with increasingly dire consequences for America’s — and Newark’s — Jewish population.
What strikes the viewer — as well as readers of the book — is the warm, believable family and neighborhood portraits that Roth creates, modeling the Levin family on his own (in the novel, he actually uses the surname Roth). This is also a very Newark proud and Jersey proud story.
The Plot Against America is a subtle piece, detailing how civil liberties can be chipped away, how people with good intentions can be misled, and how people are cowed into submission through fear and isolation.
Simon and Burns have been very true to Roth — at least through the first four episodes that have aired (Mondays at 9 pm. on HBO). Deviations include changing the family’s surname from Roth to Levin and adding more points of view to the story beyond young Philip.
The cast is terrific (I’m now a Zoe Kazan stan), as is the costume design, period details such as the buses, and the many locations — from Jersey City to Cranford to Newark to Maplewood — that are used to recreate 1940s New Jersey.
Last May, the production came to Maplewood for a few short days to transform the west side of Ridgewood Row into a Bavarian-style biergarten that is supposed to be located in Union, NJ (where the Levin family is thinking of relocating, when dad Herman — beautifully portrayed by Morgan Spector — is offered a promotion by Metropolitan Life). The location is used for scenes in episodes one and two.
From our May 2019 coverage:
On Wednesday, May 8, workers were transforming the cluster of shops — including The Framing Mill, Cedar Ridge Cafe & Bakery, Milk Money and more — into a 1930s-era film set. Roth’s novel follows a Newark family (with references to Union, Maplewood and other neighboring towns) in a dystopian re-imaging of history in which Charles Lindbergh becomes President of the United States and capitulates to Hitler.
Filming is taking place today, May 9, in Maplewood.
HBO announced the series last fall. Stars include Winona Ryder, Zoe Kazan and John Turturro. The miniseries is helmed by David Simon and Ed Burns — the team behind The Wire and miniseries Generation Kill. Simon and Burns will both serve as writers and executive producers on the series. Read more about the production here.