'The Plot Against America'? 'The Wire'? — Oh, David Simon, I'm Just Not That Into You
This piece contains spoilers for “The Plot Against America,” the novel and the miniseries.
There are two things you simply don’t hear in the circles I travel in: 1) “I like Donald Trump.” 2) “I don’t like David Simon.”
I’m OK on never having uttered No. 1. But about No. 2 — don’t tell anyone I know — I’m really not a fan of David Simon. If you’ve never subscribed to pay cable, Simon is the HBO superstar behind “The Wire,” “Treme” and, most recently, “The Plot Against America.”
It was the adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel by Simon and frequent collaborator Ed Burns that made me realize why I haven’t hooked up with Simon since he first burst on the scene with the terrific NBC series from the 1990s, “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Simon wrote the nonfiction book on which the series was based and served as a consultant and writer on the series, but “Homicide” was produced by director Barry Levinson and writer Tom Fontana.
The series was, however, a precursor of “The Wire,” not only because it was set in Baltimore, but it developed a more realistic, less heroic look at how police behaved as individuals and as partners, with each other and with their significant others.
Skip ahead a few years after “Homicide” stopped airing in 1999 and Simon has graduated from consultant to creator and showrunner for “The Wire,” after impressing HBO with the miniseries, “The Corner.” I admired “The Corner,” but wasn’t compelled to finish it and felt pretty much the same about the early episodes of “The Wire.” I’d watch them and think the writing and acting were good, the situations gritty, but come Sunday it just wasn’t calling to me. Friends whose taste I admire and who led me to other great shows would rave about it. Critics adored it. In an interview, Tony Kushner told me he didn’t think he was a good enough writer to work on the show. And it seemed to transcend race. The late local actor Johnny Lee Davenport was furious that his agent hadn’t gotten him a role on the show. President Obama said the series was “one of the greatest pieces of art of the past couple of decades.”
What was wrong with me?
Then, in 2010, along comes “Treme,” his show about post-Katrina New Orleans written with Eric Overmyer. I stuck with this one longer, thanks in large part to all the music and much of the acting. But for every scene I loved — Kim Dickens as the struggling chef throwing a Sazerac in the face of my old friend, restaurant critic Alan Richman — there’d be one I couldn’t stand — like any scene that included Steve Zahn as the disc jockey. And so I bailed. And as much as I love Maggie Gyllenhaal, it’s hard to imagine a more boring show about pornography than “The Deuce,” in 2017, which Simon created with George Pelecanos.
With all that baggage I wasn’t that keen on watching his most recent HBO show, “The Plot Against America.” It was one of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers, Philip Roth, and the reviews were a little hesitant. But friends were so into it I bit the bullet. I watched it all and it seemed to be a faithful enough portrayal of the plot of “The Plot,” until the end.
But even with this eight-part series, there was something gnawing at me. It wasn’t moving me nearly as much as the book did, and not just because I knew what was going to happen. I went back to the book and that did move me as much as ever. And so it finally dawned on me why I don’t like David Simon.
While he is widely hailed for realism and grit, there is really only a grim pseudo-reality at work. And while “Homicide” was great drama shot with great imagination, Simon’s shows constantly resort to melodrama shot with a limited, flat cinematic palette.
The main difference between Roth’s “Plot Against America” and Simon’s adaptation, until the end, is the narration. The book, of course, starts out with a melodramatic enough supposition — what if Charles Lindbergh, an American Firster of the first order, had run for president, beaten Franklin Delano Roosevelt and slowly unveiled fascist, anti-Semitic programs. As it turns out in the book, Lindbergh was most likely a Nazi plant. (Roth, of course, didn’t know that the Putin-loving, American firster Donald Trump would soon be president.)
“The Plot Against America” unfolds through the eyes of a 6- to 8-year-old boy named Philip Roth, who is and isn’t the author looking back at some point in the future on an alternative-universe reality. It’s a brilliant framing device, measuring the horrible things happening to the country and the Roth family through the dispassionate, uncomprehending, innocent lens of a boy.
It would have been difficult to replicate that narration on film, but a storyteller with greater sensitivity than Simon might have done something similar. Roth, in any guise, is the narrator of the novel. Simon and his collaborator Ed Burns are the narrator of the miniseries. Roth is having a certain amount of poetic fun by calling the family the Roths; Simon rebrands them as the Levins, which might make a certain amount of sense for television, but it’s also emblematic of a less artful sensibility.
More to the point, the change in narration swaps Roth’s dispassion for Simon’s hyperpassion. Simon is like Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel, wanting to turn everything up to an 11, desperately in need of a Rob Reiner or Tom Fontana to tell him that a 10 is as far as you can go. Instead of young Roth eyeing the world around him with a mixture of wonder and confusion and the people around him as a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses, we have Simon’s world of unspeakable corruption populated by heroes and villains with only an occasional modulation.
Thus, we have Morgan Spector as the heroic though overstated Jewish Don Draper of a father; Zoe Kazan as the understated mother; Winona Ryder punctuating some nice acting with too many neurotic tics as the aunt; Azhy Robertson’s 10-year-old Philip, through no fault of his own, all but disappearing from the story and with him, most of the subtlety of the book. Worst of all are the ludicrous portrayals of the Southern rabbi by John Turturro and the ultra-wimpy Seldon Wishnow by, again not his fault, Jacob Laval. Turturro has a long history of playing Jews, which is fine by me — I’m no “agency” absolutist — but he is often way over the top, as he was in his slanderous portrayal of Herb Stempel in “Quiz Show” and as he is here as Rabbi Bengelsdorf. His Southern accent recalls Robert De Niro’s Max Cady in “Cape Fear”; Alec Guinness’ Fagin in “Oliver Twist”; and Mel Blanc’s Foghorn Leghorn in the Looney Tunes cartoons.
One could blame the directors, but such over-emoting is par for the course for Simon. Steve Zahn’s Davis McAlary of “Treme”, the boldly uncompromising DJ, reminded me of every obnoxious, self-righteous hipster I’ve ever known — and, alas, I’ve known more than my share. He made me want to do an Elvis and shoot the TV set, but the remote was a much better alternative. At some point in the second season I just bailed.
I did go back to “The Wire” for the final season. God knows I have no illusions about the sanctity of how members of the press go about their job or the ruthlessness of tabloid publishers, but again Simon, a former reporter at the Baltimore Sun, portrays the profession as irredeemably corrupt, which I think is baloney. I don’t see a huge difference between Simon’s portrayal of fake news and corrupt institutions as significantly different from Donald Trump’s just because he’s coming at America from the left instead of the right.
I don’t begrudge Simon his darkness or his politics and you can make a point that his radical transformation of the end to “The Plot Against America” is called for by the times. The book ends with the re-election of FDR and Lindbergh in disgrace. The movie ends not knowing how the next election will turn out, much the same way that we don’t know what will happen this November, though we can imagine since in the movie ballots are being taken away and burned, again mirroring Trump’s point of view of rigged elections transposed to the left wing.
Simon’s attitude is in keeping with a certain bleak chic he has always wallowed in. Albert Camus in “The Plague,” R. Crumb in “Despair” or Samuel Beckett in any of his plays seem like good-time Charlies compared to Simon, whose world view is both hopeless and humorless (aside from the Sazerac in “Treme” and the snarkiness of the dialogue in “The Wire.”).
Who knows, perhaps I’ll have a late in life conversion and warm to the grim vision of David Simon. For the moment, though, I think I’d rather immerse myself in the light comedy of Franz Kafka. He, at least, earns his bleakness.