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John Boland's week in TV: Hatred and fake news in gripping alternate American history


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Chillingly contemporary: Bess (Zoe Kazan) in The Plot Against America on Sky Atlantic

Chillingly contemporary: Bess (Zoe Kazan) in The Plot Against America on Sky Atlantic

Chillingly contemporary: Bess (Zoe Kazan) in The Plot Against America on Sky Atlantic

In The Plot Against America (Sky Atlantic), a right-wing celebrity is elected to the White House and uses fake news and hatred of minorities to further his fascist leanings.

No, this is not a documentary about Donald Trump's America, though such associations are inevitable in a gripping six-part drama fashioned by David Simon and Ed Burns, the people who created such socially aware series as The Wire, Generation Kill and Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Here they have adapted Philip Roth's 2004 novel of the same name, in which the author imagined a counter-factual 1940s America that saw aviator Charles Lindberg defeat Franklin Roosevelt, largely by pandering to voters' anti-semitic prejudices.

In the novel, Roth used the real first names of his family from Newark, New Jersey. Here they go by the surname Levin, with much of the initial foreboding conveyed by youngest son Philip (a surrogate for Roth), who is informed by his older teenage brother Sandy that "the fascists don't like Jews" and, when Philip asks why, is simply told: "Because we're Jews."

His father, insurance salesman Herman, is especially apprehensive, saying of Lindberg's bid for the presidency: "We're going to lose -there's a lot of hate out there and he knows how to tap into it."

The echoes of Trump couldn't be made clearer, though the drama mainly succeeds in more nuanced ways, especially in its focus on family: headstrong Herman (Morgan Spector), fearful wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) and her sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder), who falls for appeasing Lindberg mouthpiece Rabbi Lionel (John Turturro).

I haven't yet seen it to its end, but you can binge-watch if you so desire and you'll find it impeccably played and beautifully shot, with great attention to period detail. The resonances, though, are chillingly contemporary.

The nine-part Mrs America (BBC2) takes place three decades later, with right-wing activist Phyllis Schlafly battling for the hearts, minds and souls of middle-class housewives against the attempt by the Women's Lib movement to get its Equal Rights Amendment into the US constitution.

What's interesting here is that Schlafly, a figure unfamiliar to most viewers - certainly most non-American viewers - is centre stage for most of the time and is embodied, in all her outward sweetness but inflexibly steely core, by Cate Blanchett (an executive producer on the series) at her most mesmerising.

Why Blanchett opted for the role of a truth-bending representative of the reactionary right is intriguing, but she finds in her character a muddle of contradictions and hypocrisies that is more riveting than such sketchily drawn right-on liberal adversaries as Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale).

Indeed, if it's true that the devil has all the best tunes, Cate Blanchett is on singing form here.

Overall, it was a week in which right-wing ideologues reigned, though for Rupert Murdoch it could be argued that it's always been about business rather then politics and about the restoration and consolidation of a media empire that had been lost by his father in their native Australia.

That, of course, doesn't explain his obsession with achieving global media dominance, but in the first instalment of The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty (BBC2) there were lots of people eager to offer their tuppenceworth on the matter.

Some of these weren't exactly impartial, including heir-apparent daughter Elisabeth, not-so-apparent sons Lachlan and James, and indeed Alastair Campbell as he reflected on Murdoch's unholy alliance with Tony Blair in the former British PM's bid for power.

It was all riveting stuff and should get even more riveting in the next two instalments as we learn about Sky and Fox News and other manifestations of Murdoch's attempt to gain worldwide media control and to sway political outcomes. In this week's first outing, what we didn't learn was what makes the man tick, though maybe that will never be known.

With four more episodes to come, Once Upon a Time in Iraq (BBC2) took an unusual angle on that catastrophic 2003 invasion by telling it through the accounts of ordinary civilians and soldiers.

Aged 18 at the time, Waleed Nesyif had never said anything about Saddam Hussein "because I'd be killed". He also loved the Backstreet Boys and initially welcomed the invasion. "Soon it will be over," he thought, "Iraq will be liberated and we'll be drinking Jack Daniel's." But that wasn't how it turned out and at least under Saddam they had "felt safe".

For his part, US marine Rudy Reyes had exulted in belonging to "very capable, violent professionals". It was "godlike", he recalled. But asked here whether it had been worth it, he only offered: "Yes, it was worth it. I mean, it has to be worth it. Or what's the alternative?"

With no public marches allowed this year, The Twelfth Revisited (BBC1) had to make do with presenter Helen Mark offering "loads of great archive footage for you to enjoy". For myself, I couldn't think of anything more depressing and so I hurriedly switched over to Pat Shortt's Music from D'Telly.

With the sad passing of Jack Charlton, which was rightly honoured by all, RTÉ1 rescreened Ross Whitaker's two-part documentary The Boys in Green, which celebrated the giddy years of the Englishman's reign as Republic of Ireland manager.

But Covid-19 must have been playing tricks with my memory because I'd honestly thought this two-parter had originally been aired ages ago when, in fact, it had only been screened in March. What a difference a virus makes.

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