Garrett Epps is Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore. He covers the Supreme Court for theatlantic.com. His book, American Epic: Reading the US Constitution was published in August 2013 by Oxford University Press.
More than a decade ago, I ran into a friend at a college bookstore. At the time, this man was a professional semiotician and the world's leading academic expert on the delightfully trashy prime-time soap opera "Dallas." On an impulse, I asked him what he thought of the then-new and very hot "L.A. Law."
Plainly thinking about this for the first time, he gazed meditatively into the distance for a few seconds and said, "To the American unconscious, the word law means one thing and one thing only: sex. During the era of 'Perry Mason,' society's rule was thou shalt not. In the era of 'L.A. Law,' the commandment is thou shalt."
Joss Whedon is the Hazel Motes of American television. Motes, a hill-country preacher created by Flannery O'Connor, toured the back roads of the American South to win souls for the "Church Without Christ." Having annihilated God, Motes was helplessly possessed nonetheless by the religious instinct -- and, O'Connor later wrote, his peculiar stubborn integrity lay in his absolute inability to rid himself of the yearning to know what he could not believe in.
"There's nothing good on TV anymore," a friend recently said. He is a Democrat and a University of North Carolina basketball fan. "I don't watch anything but that ESPN Classic," which shows videotapes of old Tar Heel victories.
For those nostalgic for the days of elected government, there really is little news programming worth watching. Many of my liberal friends have turned for consolation to the alternate universe of The West Wing, a kind of CNN Classic in which a Democratic president holds office, having won it the old-fashioned way.
Cultural novelties are many, but genuinely new art forms don't come along very often. The computer game may be to our time what film was to the early twentieth century. There's a cultural divide about this -- literate young people in their twenties routinely spend leisure hours hunting aliens on their PCs; gaffers like me tend to regard this as a waste of time. But my link to the world of the young is a game called Civilization III, invented by master designer Sid Meier.
What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States. By James F. Simon. Simon and Schuster, 348 pages, $27.50.
Ten years ago, I made a pilgrimage to Shockoe Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, where John Marshall is buried. Our little party -- two law clerks and a federal judge -- had to fight its way to the grave site through weeds and brambles. In a city that prides itself on its monuments, this one had been only fitfully tended. I was not entirely surprised: Many Richmonders cannot forgive Marshall for his rudeness to Thomas Jefferson.