Roth's novel and the HBO adaptation are both a form of alternate history, not that dissimilar from a more heightened example of the genre like Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which was turned into a popular series for Amazon a few years back. In the book, Roth forks away from historical reality right in the opening, observing that his terror as a child was partially rooted in the results of Lindbergh's presidency. Any reader with a cursory understanding of American history knows that Charles Lindbergh, a national hero following his record-breaking solo transatlantic flight piloting the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927, was never a U.S. president; the real president during the lead-up to World War II was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was in office from 1933 until he died in 1945. Here's the simple question driving The Plot Against America: What if FDR didn't maintain control of the country?
Instead of explicitly announcing that change upfront through voice-over narration or text-on-screen, the first episode of The Plot Against America, written by Simon and Burns, elegantly sketches out the details of young Philip's day-to-day existence. We meet his tough-but-caring father, Herman (Morgan Spector); his watchful homemaker mother, Bess (Zoe Kazan); his budding artist older brother, Sandy (Caleb Malis); his fretful unmarried aunt Evelyn (Wynona Ryder); his trouble-maker cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle); and other important characters, like John Turturro's Lindbergh-endorsing Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. In the book, the family is named the Roths, but here they're the Levins. Still, Simon, Burns, and director Minkie Spiro retain the nostalgic glow and attention-to-detail that defines Roth's depiction of growing up in a tight-knit Jewish community in mid-century America, a place where neighbors look out for each other and kids play in the streets.
But even in the first episode, the specter of Lindbergh, the platform of isolationism, and the growing public acceptance of anti-Semitism hangs over this seemingly idyllic picture. With Hitler moving across Europe and taking control of France, talk of American intervention grows more pronounced, with some pushing to stay out of the conflict and arguing it would be economically destructive following the Great Depression. At one point early in the episode, a projectionist at the local movie theater tells Herman that there's a lot of kindling out there and that Lindbergh, an outspoken isolationist and unapologetic fear-monger, if he runs for president, "could be the spark."