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Stuck at home? Settle in to see 'The Plot Against America' and 'Little Fires Everywhere'

Alan Pergament

With the coronavirus leading to government officials suggesting people stay home, it is time to give you some TV suggestions to pass the time.

I had a preview of self-imposed confinement more than a week ago when the local TV news departments suggested a big snowstorm was finally coming, which led several Western New York school districts to close schools.

The storm came, but not in my downtown neighborhood.

I’m not going to severely criticize meteorologists, but I wish they had emphasized where the snow was heading. But I digress.

While the stock market is cratering, TV could be immune to the impact of the coronavirus.

Perry Sook, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Nexstar, the owner of WIVB-TV, recently suggested stations could benefit because people could be stuck at home watching TV.

I also saw NBC business expert Stephanie Ruhle note at one point that Netflix stock should be fine since people will be staying home looking for something to watch.

Of course, I have one job where you can do more work by staying home. The networks and cable channels stream upcoming series for critics before they premiere.

The day the snow was supposedly coming, I decided it was a good time to watch all six hours of the HBO miniseries series “The Plot Against America” that the pay-cable channel made available for review. The first episode of the series premieres Monday.

Based on the 2004 Philip Roth novel, “Plot” was adapted for television by writer-producer David Simon, best known for HBO’s “The Wire.” Though published 16 years ago, it still is timely.

It is a fictional account of what would have happened if American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, widely viewed by historians as an anti-Semite who supported fascism and American isolationism, had become president and stoked anti-Semitism in the United States.

The cast is uniformly excellent, lead by Morgan Spector as Herman Levin, the prescient and often angry patriarch of a Jewish family; Zoe Kazan as his smart, practical and fearful wife; Winona Ryder as his vulnerable and easy influenced sister-in-law; Anthony Boyle as Herman's nephew who joins the Canadian army to fight Hitler; Caleb Malis as the easily influenced, artistic teenage son who ultimately gets an education in prejudice; and John Turturro as a well-meaning rabbi from the south who badly misjudges the Lindbergh administration.

Though it could have easily been viewed as just a cautionary tale about America’s hero worship that ends with some celebrities becoming president, the actor playing Lindbergh is only a bit player.

The miniseries revolves around Lindbergh’s enabling of anti-Semitism in the 1940s and its impact on the extended Levin family in New Jersey.

“There is a lot of hate out there and he knows how to tap into it,” Herman says in the premiere.

“They’ve always been there, now they’ve gotten (expletive) permission,” he says in the third episode.

That dialogue seems to be influenced by real criticism of President Trump, who Simon frequently criticizes on Twitter. But for the most part, Simon downplays his political passion and lets the dangers largely speak for themselves rather than spelling them out.

“Plot” seems a little disorganized and choppy at times, only to be saved by strong acting and a stronger message. It is an important series that gives viewers a lot to think about, which makes it worthy of your time.

At a January news conference in Pasadena, Calif., Simon said he met Roth only once before the author’s death in 2018.

“He actually had one moment of clarity, I think, and caution about the book he’d written and about our current time,” recalled Simon. “He said Lindbergh really was a hero, and he really was heroic, and he brought astounding charisma to the moment that he found himself in. There was a genuine fear that he would be nominated to run in 1940 against (Franklin) Roosevelt on the part of the Democrats.”

Simon then explained the reason a story set 80 years ago remains important viewing today.

“I think it’s fairly apparent that the political paradigm that’s now — not only in America, but internationally you’re seeing it, in terms of populism and nationalism and the rise of xenophobia and fear of the other, that’s the reason this got made,” Simon said.

He added somebody came to him after President Obama’s re-election and told him he thought it would make a great miniseries.

“I said to him, 'I enjoyed the novel. It’s a nice little artifact. It was fascinating in its moment, but I don’t see the country — that doesn’t seem to be our political moment.’ So, you know, how wrong was I?  The reason to do this is that — and not merely because of the current administration, but because of the forces that are now in play politically, the piece is incredibly relevant. That’s why we’re all here.”

He noted one of his father’s earliest memories at the age of 7 was sitting on his father’s shoulders for the ticker tape parade on Broadway after Lindbergh completed the first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.

“A Jewish kid. Ten years later, my father was learning to loathe Charles Lindbergh for the complete political transformation of his hero,” Simon explained. “You didn’t even need the dynamic of a great American hero in order to sway our very political foundations, which is kind of unnerving to me.

“What’s remarkable to me is that the book actually goes from this very specific historical moment, and this very specific threat against Jews to being allegorical for everything that’s going wrong in our time. He wrote that, and it works. All you have to do is just stand back for a moment and take the greater sphere of what he actually accomplished.”

And now for something completely different – the Hulu limited series “Little Fires Everywhere,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington that begins streaming the first three of eight episodes Wednesday. After that, weekly episodes stream.

Based on the 2017 novel by Celeste Ng set in the upscale Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, “Little Fires” should appeal to viewers of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” who enjoy looking at dysfunction of rich families and love a mystery.

At a Pasadena news conference, Witherspoon denied her character, Elena Richardson, has many of the entitled characteristics of her take charge “Big Little Lies” character, Madeline. Joshua Jackson plays her lawyer husband, Bill, the sort of thankless role Adam Scott played in “Big Little Lies” as Madeline’s husband.

Washington plays Mia Warren, a cold mysterious artist who moves to Shaker Heights with her teenage daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) for reasons that become clearer as the episodes continue.

The series starts with the burning of the Richardson mansion, then flashes back to all the little fires burning in the characters so viewers can gradually speculate on who set the place on fire and why.

“Little Fires” is the TV equivalent of a page turner that also is a showcase for the young actors playing teenagers, especially Underwood.

The actors playing the four different Richardson children – Jade Pettyjohn as the Yale-bound Lexie, Jordan Elsass as athletic Trip, Gavin Lewis as the smart and sensitive Moody and Megan Stott as the rebellious Izzy – are all exceptional.

The seven episodes made available for review deal with issues of class, gender, homophobia, entitlement, race, ethics, mother-daughter relationships and questioning one’s path in life.

I watched all seven within 24 non-snowy hours and the best thing I can say about “Little Fires” is it has another thing in common with "Big Little Lies": I can’t wait to see how it ends.

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