From Macbeth to I, Claudius, what makes political drama irresistible isn’t the collective but the intimate. Television writers understand what many historians don’t: Politics is the epic expression of humanity at its most private. Rack your brains, and you might recall that at the center of last winter’s House of Cards was a battle over education legislation; less forgettable are the unctuous and slithery monologues about congressional sway and supremacy by master manipulator Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey). The Danish series Borgen roils with policy skirmishes over an African civil war and the legal age of punishment for crimes by minors, but all of it is a stage for the transformation of Birgitte Nyborg, her nation’s first female prime minister. A voice of idealism at the outset, Nyborg struggles with the hard trade-offs of uniting a coalition of fractious parties. As she becomes cannier and more confident at governing, however, she loses her grip on a crumbling family—a daughter afflicted by anxiety attacks, a small son who wets his bed, a husband forced to pass up a once-in-a-lifetime job offer because his wife is running a country.
Barack Obama’s presidency is a series of crossroads. The crossroads are moments of decision for a president who is utterly indecisive except, of course, when he’s not a ruthless tyrant trampling the Constitution (or, on more banal occasions, saving the national economy or pressing forward on health-care reform or ordering the execution of the mass murderer of 3,000 Americans).
Unless you’re tyrannized by the laws of calendars and clocks, the “Sixties” (as opposed to the 1960s) were born not on a day or at a given hour. Rather they emerged from the six months between August 28, 1963, and February 23, 1964, the midway locus falling on November 22—three dates marking episodes as irrevocable as they were momentous.
The new movie, Blue Jasmine, has been so wildly embraced by critics, while being so replete with its writer-director’s worst tendencies, that it provides the best example in years of Woody Allen’s status as America’s most overrated filmmaker. At the center of the picture is the calculatedly neurotic performance by the otherwise fine actress Cate Blanchett, who exhausts our patience within five minutes and, for having done so, has emerged as a front runner for the Academy Award; her Jasmine is the stranger next to you on a plane who never shuts up about herself and commandeers your attention without a clue or care that you might have a life too, since she decided long before she laid eyes on you that you exist for no reason but to enable her or advance her interests or, if need be, save her. She’s certainly not somebody in whose company you want to spend an hour and a half, even with a movie screen between you.
Shame peaked when Nathaniel Hawthorne slapped Hester Prynne with that scarlet A a couple hundred years ago, and it’s been going out of fashion ever since. To a certain extent, good riddance; for most of the last few thousand years of Judeo-Christian morality, public shame has been more oppressive than moral, the judgment of a tyranny of collectively held values rather than an expression of values worth being held.