“Plot” is a departure for Simon, who has not adapted a work of fiction before, yet it feels natural. Simon is an artist of granular realism, and the lived-in middle-to-working-class Jewish New Jersey he creates gives the series its power.
The Levins are a family in full, not just plot-advancement devices, and Kazan and Spector are especially strong anchors. (The depictions of fictionalized historical figures — Lindbergh, Winchell, the anti-Semitic Henry Ford, now treasury secretary — are thinner.)
Simon, like Roth, loves a good argument, and the ones here are all too familiar and believable. The accommodationists believe that they can guide the administration away from its worst tendencies. The resisters debate whether simply listening to the radio and getting mad counts as action, or if more active steps are needed.
“Plot” is something of a thematic risk for Simon, too. His past work — “The Wire,” “Show Me a Hero,” “The Deuce” — is driven by the belief that individual acts can do only so much in the face of overpowering social systems. That might have made “Plot,” the story of how one man’s run for president might have nudged history off course, an uneasy fit for Simon’s philosophy, as much as it might mesh with his politics.
Instead, he’s produced a translation that’s at once fully Rothian and fully Simonian. He hasn’t changed a lot in the story, but where he has, it’s to emphasize that the charismatic bigot in the White House is not simply an aberration who can be erased and forgotten like a bad dream. The problem is as much the passions and cynicism that made him possible: the citizens whose prejudice was validated, the officials who got a taste of thugocracy, the society that learned the norms of decent behavior were always optional, the minorities who found that equality is revocable.
That merger of visions makes the difference between a dutiful adaptation of a great novel and a series that is great in itself. There is plenty of pugilistic optimism in this “Plot,” but it’s tough-minded. Maybe the clouds will part. Maybe the next plane to fly overhead will be a friendly one. But you will never feel as safe under that sky again.