Podcast / Start Making Sense / Apr 17, 2024

Trump’s Very Bad Week— Plus, Prestige TV, From The Sympathizer to Shogun

Trump’s Very Bad Week— Plus, Prestige TV, From “The Sympathizer” to “Shogun”

On this episode of Start Making Sense, John Nichols comments on the hush money trial, and John Powers reviews historical dramas on “quality” TV.

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On this episode of The Time of Monsters, David Klion on the legacy of the former New Republic publisher.

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On Monday, Donald Trump became the first president in history to face trial on criminal charges. His polls are down and the stock price of Trump Media has fallen 60 percent. Nation national affairs corespondent John Nichols is on the podcast to discuss.

Also on this episode: TV right now is featuring several prestige historical dramas. John Powers compares and contrasts The Sympathizer, centering on a spy for the Communists in Vietnam and then California in the 1970s; Manhunt, following the search for Lincoln’s assassin; A Gentleman in Moscow, portraying a Russian aristocrat after the Bolshevik Revolution, and Shogun, about feuding 17th-century Japanese warlords. John is critic at large for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener. Later in the show: TV right now is featuring several prestige historical dramas.  John Powers will compare and contrast “The Sympathizer,” centering on a spy for the Communists in Vietnam and then n California in the seventies, with “Manhunt,” following the search for Lincoln’s assassin; “A Gentleman in Moscow,” portraying a Russian aristocrat after the Bolshevik Revolution, and “Shogun,” about feuding 17th century Japanese warlords.  John is critic at large for Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
But first: Trump has had very bad week – John Nichols will report, in a minute.
For this week’s political update, we turn to John Nichols. Of course he’s national affairs correspondent for The Nation and author of many booka–most recently, “It’s Okay To Be Angry About Capitalism,” co-authored by Bernie Sanders. John, welcome back.

John Nichols: It’s great to be with you, Jon.

Jon Wiener: This is the week the criminal case of the people of New York versus Donald J. Trump begins in Manhattan. For the first time in American history, a former president is facing criminal prosecution. The testimony will remind people how, at the peak of the 2016 campaign, shortly after that Access Hollywood tape became public, that’s where Trump, of course, boasted of grabbing women sexually. He paid for the silence of people, allegedly, people who possessed damaging stories about his behavior with women, and he then falsified business records of the Trump Organization to hide those payments. We know about this from testimony of his fixer at the time, Michael Cohen, who paid adult film actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about her alleged sex with Trump. This was shortly after Melania gave birth to Barron. The payment was made through a shell company.
He also set up $150,000 payment for the publisher of the National Inquirer to Playboy model Karen McDougal for her story about an affair with Trump. That money would give the National Inquirer exclusive rights to Karen McDougal’s story about sex with Trump, meaning they could decline to publish it and she could not take it elsewhere. This practice is known as catch and kill.
Trump then allegedly falsified business records to reimburse Cohen for legal expenses. Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg has charged Trump with 34 counts felonies of falsifying those records. The case might last as long as eight weeks.
Trump, of course, again, is playing the victim, raising money off of his supporters around the trial, swearing to use the power of the presidency if he is re-elected to get the people who have done this to him.
A lot of pundits say these charges are insignificant compared to the January 6th charges, and some suggest that eight weeks of testimony about Trump paying off a porn star might evoke admiration and envy among some of his male supporters, but it’s not going to help him with suburban white women who vote. I think it’s much more likely to hurt him than to help him. What do you think?

John Nichols: I will tell you that whatever admiration and envy that is evoked from being on trial for eight weeks, is probably going to be among folks who were already going to vote for Trump anyway, so I don’t think there’s much chance this trial helps him. I think there’s a lot of chance that it hurts him. In fact, I think it’s already hurting him, not least because he appears to have fallen asleep at one point during the trial, which is a little weird and might even provoke some speculation about his aging or his abilities.
But at the heart of it is a real political calculus, and that’s this. In the primaries where they did exit polls, and that would be New Hampshire to some extent, Iowa, but the caucuses, but also South Carolina, in those early stages, they asked a question and it was, if Donald Trump is convicted of any of the charges that he faces, would that impact your thinking about voting for him?
And an incredibly large portion of Republicans, not just people who voted for Nikki Haley or others in those caucuses or primaries, but even some people were voting for Trump, said “Yes, it would be a big deal.” In fact, some states you were getting toward a majority or nearly half of the voters. And what you have to recognize is that whether Trump is convicted on these charges or not, that’s a substantial portion of the Republican base that is looking at this as something that’s problematic.
Eight weeks of trial and testimony, with people who are in many cases, long-time associates of Trump, turning on him and saying he did illegal and illicit things. He was a bad player, he was an untrustworthy player, et cetera, et cetera. I think coming the context of the run-up to a presidential convention, it’s a pretty bad thing. And so I do think this is … Overall, I don’t see any way that it doesn’t damage him. And obviously if he’s convicted then I think it does quite a bit of damage.

Jon Wiener: To avoid conviction, he just has to have that one juror. And of course, both sides are very much aware that one juror can hang the jury, and so the Trump defense team is doing everything they can to get one juror who will stand alone against the obvious implications of all the evidence, and the prosecution is going to do everything it can to keep the jury, people who will pay attention to the evidence and rule accordingly. That’s what’s going to be happening this week.

John Nichols: And that’s the basics of the law, right? Donald Trump’s lawyers have a responsibility to try and find a jury that will give him his best shot at getting off the hook. Most people who go on a jury will ultimately take seriously their oath when they say that they’re going to listen to the facts and try and judge fairly according to the law.  A good judge reinforces that through the process. And so, for all this speculation now about who’s going to be on the jury one way or the other, I think at the heart of the matter, you’ve got the case as regards Trump. If Bragg and his associates make this case effectively, they can get their conviction.
I’m not saying they will. I mean, there’s still all the realities of a trial to be seen, but my sense is that a lot of the people who were dismissive of this case, a lot of the pundits who were dismissive of this case, what they didn’t recognize was a particular reality, which is this case came very early. This was way before some of the other charges against Trump. That’s given Bragg and his associates a lot of time to put together what ought to be an effective prosecution. They know they’re in the limelight, they know what they’re up against. They also know how Trump behaves in the courtroom, how he attacks those who are trying to prosecute them. So my sense is that they’re going to be prepared. And if they are prepared, if you look at the facts that we have, at least up to this point, it doesn’t look good for Donald Trump. It doesn’t look good for him at all.

Jon Wiener: One other thing. Trump says he wants to testify. If you were on Trump’s defense team, what advice would you give him?

John Nichols: If I was being paid by Donald Trump to try and get him off the hook, I would desperately plead for him not to testify, and I would also hope that he might fall asleep during that portion of the trial, not demand to be up there. But at a certain point when you have a powerful client who’s paying you a lot of money, you defer to that client, even if it doesn’t make sense.
And Trump always has this bravado about him where he says, “Oh, I want to testify. I want to take them on, and stuff like that.” We’ll see as the trial progresses if he really wants to take that stand because frankly, if he does, I would say the chances of conviction skyrocket.

Jon Wiener: The rest of Trump’s week wasn’t so good either. The New York Times poll showed he’s lost ground in the last month and that the popular vote right now is basically tied of 22 national polls released since March 25th. Biden leads in nine, Trump in eight. The candidates are tied in five. There are new polls with Biden ahead in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin where the Wall Street Journal poll on April 2nd had Biden at 41, Trump, 38. Robert Kennedy Junior at 10, Cornel West at 1%. Do you have any wisdom to offer on the state of the polls this week?

John Nichols: Sure. Joe Biden hit rock bottom in his polling last November. That provoked a huge discussion among Democrats about whether he was the guy, or whether … there’s even talk that maybe he should stand down. There was also at the same time, a parallel pressure by the Republicans to suggest that he was incompetent, that he was simply dysfunctional.
The Republicans did him a huge favor because you got to the State of the Union address. Joe Biden got up there, gave a very effective State of the Union address, very quick-witted, on top of things, handling all the challenges that came his way, including Marjorie Taylor Greene shouting at him and stuff like that. And suddenly, a lot of the weakness and the damage that had been done to Biden dissipated, and I think that’s what we’ve been seeing since then, which is a steady ticking up in the polls, both nationally and in the battleground states. And now I think, yeah, you’re at a point where you can say that Biden is either tied or potentially even moving into a lead.
Tip for you, pro tip if you’re looking to cover politics: being a candidate who is surging into the lead as the campaign takes shape is a good thing. It’s even better if your opponent is on trial for all sorts of scandalous things. And so for Biden, this looks pretty good.
The one counsel I’d give though, and this is an important one to keep track of, is that Robert F. Kennedy number. That’s a lot of votes, 10% in Wisconsin, the state where I live. Roughly parallel numbers in a number of other states. Why this matters is because Kennedy draws from both Biden and from Trump, and I think that he’s going to be a continuing complicating factor, and I think too much of the punditry, too much of the coverage of this race doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the Kennedy campaign. I think you have to pay attention to it, and you have to realize that as much as Ross Perot in 1992 became a decisive figure in that race, even though he didn’t win, you got to keep track of that. With that said, with that proviso, my sense is that, is that Biden’s in pretty good shape?.

Jon Wiener: One other thing about Trump’s bad week that matters a lot to Donald Trump, stock in Trump Media is down 60%. As a metaphor, it’s certainly powerful. Is it anything more than a metaphor?

John Nichols: It’s really powerful because he’s relying on that. He’s trying to pile up money to deal with some real serious challenges. One being all of his legal troubles, not just the one we’re talking about, but all of his cases, paying a lot of lawyers a lot of money. Also frankly, losing cases and having to pay huge fines, in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And so as a result, his economic status is an issue, just a practical issue there.
But beyond that, separate from that, is the image of Donald Trump as what people historically saw him as, a deal maker, an effective guy, a guy who knew how to make money. I no longer refer to Trump as a billionaire, referred to him as an alleged billionaire because there’s an awful lot of evidence that there was a lot of smoke and mirrors there, and I think this feeds into that. So yeah, it’s damaging to him, on a number of levels.
It’s also frankly revealing in a terrible way for his enthusiasts. Can you imagine the poor people that went out and bought stock in his media operation? Working class people, middle-class people who thought, “Wow, that’s a great investment that shooting up.” Trump hasn’t lost a lot of money here. They’ve lost a lot of money. His supporters, once again, he has taken advantage of them and they’ve come out behind.

Jon Wiener: On the other side, Biden has one very big challenge that we have been preoccupied with, and that is his support for Israel in its war against the Palestinians in Gaza. This week, only 33% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza. Opposition, of course, is especially strong among Democrats, even stronger among young people, and you’ve reported this week for The Nation on what for many is an unexpected source of anti-war activism, Christians. We’re usually told that some of Israel’s biggest supporters in the United States are evangelical Christians, but there are other Christians, you remind us, activists with different views. Tell us what you found.

John Nichols: This is a big deal. First and foremost, I think it’s important to recognize when you say only 33% of people approve of Biden’s handling of Israel. I’m surprised it’s 33%. It has been really difficult to watch this president deal with this issue. And his initial response of being sympathetic to Israel after the Hamas attack, that was fine. But from there on, there has been a fit and start approach to it that has left a … it sent a lot of mixed signals and often has Biden saying, “Yeah, we really don’t like this happening, but we’re still going to give you a whole bunch of weapons to do it.” He hasn’t had a coherent stance here that I think is effective or good, or frankly, certainly not right.
So, you are seeing an evolution of this movement protesting against Biden’s stance. Initially, an awful lot of the people, a tremendous number of the people who were out there, were Muslim Americans who had all sorts of reasons to be concerned about this, and a lot of Jewish Americans who also had a lot of reasons to be concerned about it. Christians were always there, there’s no question of that, but I think they were not noticed as much initially. Now, they are being noticed.
Not that long ago, a thousand Black pastors sent a letter to President Biden saying that he should support a full ceasefire, immediate, permanent. And really shift US policy as regards Israel and Palestine. We have seen an ongoing effort by a small group that’s been very determined, that’s Mennonite Action. This is one of the smaller Christian Protestant denominations in the US, an Anabaptist denomination, and they’ve been working this for months and really had a lot of protests at Congressional offices, things like that.
This last week, we saw a somewhat newer group, Christians for A Free Palestine, who came to Washington and brought people from all over the country for protests, specifically saying that as Christians, they believe that what’s going on in Palestine and Gaza is unacceptable, it’s horrific. And why that matters is what you mentioned, Jon. We have had a long-term message in our media that somehow evangelical Christians and shorthand even to Christians, are on Israel’s side here.
The fact of the matter is, that what these groups are saying is no. There is a growing and passionate rejection of the Biden administration’s approach from Americans who follow a variety of Christian faith, members of a variety of denominations, and what they did in Washington was very thoughtful and very pointed. They went to the Senate cafeteria, dozens of folks, some of them in religious garb, others dressed just street clothing, and they arrayed themselves between the food and the cash registers, and they said, “We’re not moving until the people of Gaza can eat.” It was a very, very effective message about famine and about the potential for famine in Gaza from faith-based activists who obviously have many reasons to take these issues seriously.  I know that it was noticed by senators. I know that it was noticed by congressional aides, and I wish that our media paid more attention. But obviously if you read The Nation, you know what’s going on.

Jon Wiener: John Nichols–you can read his latest piece, “Christian Peacemakers Are Ramping Up Their Faith-Based Call For A Ceasefire” at thenation.com. John, thanks for that report and thanks for talking with us today.

John Nichols: It’s an honor to be with you, Jon.

Jon Wiener: Nwxt we want to talk about Prestige TV–historical dramas streaming now: “The Sympathizer,” “Manhunt,” “A Gentleman in Moscow,” and “Shogun.” For that, we turn to John Powers. He’s critic at large on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, where he is heard by more than 8 million listeners on the radio and the podcast. He’s worked for 25 years as a critic and columnist, first at the LA Weekly then Vogue. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and The Nation. Last time he was here, we talked about the film “American Fiction,” based on Percival Everett’s wonderful novel “Erasure.” John Powers, welcome back.

John Powers: Glad to be here.

Jon Wiener: I want to start with “The Sympathizer,” seven episodes on HBO. I think it’s the best of what we’re reviewing today. Episode one. at least, I thought was spectacularly good. That’s the only one that’s available to us civilians right now. You of course have seen more. The series is based on a terrific novel by Viet Nguyen that came out in 2015 and won the Pulitzer Prize that year. The TV series is an espionage thriller that HBO says is “a cross-cultural satire” about the struggles of a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy during the last days of the Vietnam War, and then his new life as a refugee in L.A. where he is been sent to spy on the anti-communist exile leaders. So it’s a spy series. It’s very much about the psychology of the spy, but it’s not like a John Le Carre spy series.

John Powers: No, it’s not. It is a portrait, I think, of many different kinds of ambivalence. It is a story about a guy who is loyal to Vietnam, which is why he’s a North Vietnamese spy, but he has two great friends. He’s blood brothers with these friends. They call themselves the Three Musketeers. He’s in the center. On one side is one who is a North Vietnamese spy, secretly, on the other side, a gung-ho South Vietnamese soldier who’s exceedingly violent and very loyal. He’s caught between those two, and his job essentially is, he’s been brought in by the North Vietnamese to spy on a general of the Saigon regime, first in Saigon, and then later as they move to Los Angeles and begin their new lives. The general owns a liquor store and our hero is more or less trying to keep tabs on them for the North Vietnamese while feeling more and more isolated the entire time.

Jon Wiener: The first thing we see at the beginning of episode one is a title card that says, in America they call it the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, they call it the American War. That tells us a lot about what’s to come.

John Powers: It does, yes.  Because one of the most basic things is that… I mean, I’ve seen lots of Vietnam shows and I think at the time I first read “The Sympathizer,” I thought it was probably the best thing I’d read by someone showing me how it would look from the other side of, I guess, of the looking glass, and this show does that.

Jon Wiener: The first episode is about our protagonist’s confession, which he’s ordered to write in longhand in a communist re-education camp just after the fall of Saigon. We think he has nothing to confess. He worked as a spy for the Viet Cong inside the Saigon government secret police. and yet–what?

John Powers: And yet there’s always something to confess. Among the things about this character there are things he likes about the United States. He likes the pop songs, even though he’s not quite sure he should. That’s something you have to confess.

Jon Wiener:   One key scene of episode one really struck me. Our hero has set up one of his fellow North Vietnamese agents in Saigon to be caught with secret Saigon government documents that he has given her. She is very roughly interrogated and the interrogators try to get her to reveal who gave her the documents. Who of course was our hero. Well, ”the captain” he’s called, he’s a captain in the Saigon government. The captain watches her interrogation where they’re forcing her to reveal that she got these documents from him, but she refuses. She doesn’t name him because she is totally committed to the cause of revolution. And there’s a close-up of his face in tears, and he has to be thinking: is his own commitment as total as hers? After all, he did tell us at the very beginning that he’s “a man of two faces and also of two minds.”

John Powers: Yes, that is the great drama–both of his friends are deeply committed. His friend, the one who fights for the South Vietnamese is gung ho, he will die for it. The North Vietnamese guy will die for it. Whereas he’s in between. He doesn’t know whether he will, but he’s doing the things you do. As it is, he set up this woman who you just described, basically to be tortured to reveal something. And he knows basically he’s responsible for it and yet he’s not sure he’s completely sold on it. Which is maybe even more something to confess, which is you get somebody tortured and you’re not really sure you believe in it. Whereas for a hardened revolutionary, the thought would be you would just do it, because you know it’s the necessary thing. And on his face, he’s not sure it’s necessary.

Jon Wiener: You mentioned the man who should be his nemesis, the general who he’s been appointed to spy on, who heads the Saigon government secret police, but the general is not just the villain. He’s actually an interesting guy, sort of likable in some ways. So this is complicated too.

John Powers: It is complicated, because it’s one of the classic things of spy novels and many of the greatest double-agent things, is that you actually like and become friends with the people you’re betraying. And in a way that’s harder than almost anything, because you spend so much time with them, and the more time with them, the more you see the things from their point of view and you feel a certain affection, especially because the guy playing the general is childish, he’s paranoic, but he’s charming and likable. The actor’s a wonderful actor, and so even though he’s monstrous, you also like him. And that’s exactly what the captain feels. But he’s having to do things both for him that he thinks are abhorrent and against him that are probably abhorrent. Which is a strange place to be working both sides and doing bad things for both sides. Which is the classic thing, I think, of the double agent story, is that you wind up hurting everybody in every direction and feeling terrible about yourself.

Jon Wiener: One of my favorite things about the first episode is the portrayal of the streets of Saigon in 1975. It just looks spectacular. The credits say these were shot in Thailand.

John Powers: The first three episodes are incredibly well directed by the South Korean director, Park Chan-wook, who has made lots of great movies. I mean, most famous for OLDBOY [inaudible 00:07:44], but he directed the Little Drummer Girl recently on TV. He’s one of the world’s great directors and his way of capturing the way the city looks or the escape from Saigon, his way of capturing the emotion, it is so perfectly done. I mean, it is a level of directing. You’ve mentioned other shows just like a huge leap beyond the other three things, which are often good-looking or pretty or skillful. This is really great and it’s dealing with such complexity and it is capturing, especially for those of us of a certain age, the look that you remember seeing in newsreels and stuff when you’re watching was on TV every night. They weren’t really newsreels, but it was the newscasts. And when they get to Los Angeles, it’s the same way. You think, oh, I recognize the world looking this way in the mid-seventies.

Jon Wiener: Robert Downey Jr. plays all four of the white characters. The idea here is to reverse the stereotypical treatment of Asian characters in film and TV. All white men are roughly interchangeable with slight variations. Do you think that works here with Robert Downey?

John Powers: I was a little annoyed by it finally, because he’s a little broad. The idea is that all of the people he deals with, whether it’s a college professor or a congressman, they’re all the same entitled, blind, slightly cartoonish, white guy. And conceptually that works. I think that in the actual show, he’s a little big and he seems even bigger because he’s by far the most famous person in the show. So your eyes almost are automatically drawn to the movie star always. And I began thinking, would it be better if you just had four white guys who weren’t played the same character but all of whom were the same kind of guy?

Jon Wiener: That’s “The Sympathizer,” seven episodes on HBO and Max.

John Powers: And a really good show, a really good show.

Jon Wiener: Prestige TV at its best. Let’s also talk about “Manhunt,” seven episodes on Apple TV. This is a sort of a police procedural about capturing the man who assassinated Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth. We know what’s going to happen, but somehow the show is nevertheless pretty intense and scary, because we learned right away at the outset that John Wilkes Booth did not act alone. There were simultaneous efforts to assassinate the Vice President and the Secretary of State, both of which failed. I never learned about this in American history. I imagine most viewers didn’t.
So our hero, the Secretary of State, Edward Stanton, played by Tobias Menzies, needs to find out how big is this conspiracy, and who is behind it? Was it just Booth and his sidekicks, or was it the Confederate government?  Lee had surrendered just five days before, and if they killed the president, the war will have to be renewed. For me, somehow the echoes to the present were the scary part, even though that couldn’t have been part of the conception, this is based on a book written 10 years ago, before anyone ever imagined Trump as a candidate.  But what will Trump’s supporters do if and when he loses in November? Last time it was “Hang Mike Pence” and “get Nancy Pelosi.” So I found “Manhunt” to be gripping and kind of scary.

John Powers: It is. And it is funny, I think it’s a good reminder that American history is much crazier than we have been taught. I mean, I think I probably had vaguely heard at some point there might’ve been a conspiracy with Booth, but it was never in my head. Certainly, when I was going to school, that wasn’t the way that it was ever taught. The idea that up in Montreal, there’s a Confederacy-owned bank that actually has deposited money in John Wilkes Booth’s account–so that in fact, it is part of a big conspiracy.
It is a scary thing about now because you do feel it. The lower case version is when Trump was defeated in the last election, I think everyone thought, oh, finally it’s over, rather than thinking, oh no, it’s going to continue for years with the claim that in fact he actually won the election and was robbed and that now that’s an article of faith for an entire party, for an entire huge media network. Even though they denied it at the time, they now don’t want to deny it anymore, because it costs them their advertising money. So I do feel this, and it is very well done.
The director of this is Carl Franklin, who’s an excellent director. The guy who plays John Wilkes Booth is very, very good. A northern Irish guy. It seems like we’re even having to outsource our assassins, Jon. Can you believe that? We can’t even find an American who can play John Wilkes Booth. Yet, don’t you feel like somehow, out in America, we have another John Wilkes Booth–who is being played by an American?

Jon Wiener: “Manhunt,” seven episodes on Apple TV. Then we want to talk about “A Gentleman In  Moscow.” This provides a critique of the Russian Revolution from the viewpoint of the aristocracy. The Bolsheviks, we learn, were mean to the noblemen, and knew nothing about wine. In this show, our hero, Count Alexander Rostov, played by Ewan McGregor, is sentenced to a kind of house arrest in a Grand Moscow hotel–where he sleeps in a former maid’s room, but otherwise lives a life of five star luxury for 30 years.”According to the publicity, the theme is that as the Soviet regime descends into tyranny, the Count “discovers the value of love, courage, and community.” Somehow it never raises the question, could it be that the Count and his family mercilessly exploited the serfs on their estates? That’s not what this is about. The Count is a charming and delightful character, and so is the beautiful movie star he sleeps with, so is the little girl he befriends, so is the warm-hearted hotel worker who cares for bees up on the roof. It’s a simple ide–Stalinism was bad. The Russian aristocracy was charming and delightful. Is this story worth eight hours?

John Powers:   Well, it’s not worth eight hours. It is a charming enough story, I guess, and the Count is a charming guy and Ewan McGregor plays him very winningly. Probably a younger, angrier version of myself would have fulminated about this, given that you don’t even have the decency to explain why there had been a Russian Revolution. And that someone like Ewan McGregor who could be charming just because he never had to do a lick of work in his entire life, and was drinking Chateauneuf-de-Pape off the blood of his serfs.

Jon Wiener: Thank you for that.

John Powers: There are two or three things interesting about it to me. One of them is the way that it’s an incredibly reactionary idea that you, but then it is also slightly woke in that his best friend Mishka is played by a Black man, and that working in the kitchen with names like Alyosha are people of Arabic and Indian descent and who obviously aren’t Russian, so therefore you’re doing colorblind casting.

Jon Wiener: Yes.

John Powers: Okay, as I said, and that’s the kind of gesture toward modernity and progressiveness. And at the same time, the whole story does seem to be about the leveling awful nature of communism. But the one thing I would say that was interesting was, I think it’s possible that even a hardened man like you, Jon Wiener, might have identified a little bit with the Count in the following sense–I can imagine a great many liberal-minded and maybe even left-wing watchers would think this is also a Trump story. That there’s no real policy, but it’s about you knowing things, being educated, knowing how the world works, and being thrown out or being abused by people who don’t really know anything, who don’t read books, who don’t understand the world in a complex way. They’re just angry. I can imagine that many people who watch that will think, oh, this isn’t actually about the Russian Revolution. This is about what’s going to happen here in nine months.

Jon Wiener: “A gentleman in Moscow” is on Paramount Plus and on Showtime, eight episodes. Finally, on our list of Prestige TV on historical topics is the most immense and gorgeous of all, “Shogun.” Set in 17th century Japan, 10 episodes on Hulu and FX, based on a 1975 best-selling novel by James Clavell, previously a miniseries in 1980. It’s about the political rivalry and intrigue among feudal lords, and it is about a real history that Lord Toranaga was the founder and first Shogun of the Tokugawa period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867.
The problem for us today about the TV show is that the 1975 novel had to fulfill the conventions of its day. It had to have a white man at the center.  And the 2025 miniseries can’t avoid some, at least, of the same plot. John Blackthorne is a risk-taking English sailor played by somebody I didn’t know, Cosmo Jarvis, who ends up shipwrecked and taken prisoner in Japan. We follow him as he learns about his captors.  And of course there has to be what used to be called a love interest. We have a beautiful exotic Japanese woman with a mysterious past. So the structure of the whole series rests on these two, I think we have to say, Eurocentric elements.  And of course it is true that the people who made this film know about this, 44 years after the first miniseries, so the Japanese characters get a lot more screen time.  But really, isn’t it still the heroic white man who saves the day?

John Powers: No.

Jon Wiener:   And the mysterious Oriental beauty, who still finds him irresistible? Or am I wrong about this?

John Powers:   I think you’re wrong about this. You do have John Blackthorne played by Cosmo Jarvis, who didn’t mean anything to me either, but he’s almost the placeholder in the series. It’s very strange that you keep thinking, oh, at some point he’s going to be doing the important stuff in the series, and then you realize, oh, he’s not. He’s there because you actually need a surrogate person, a surrogate Westerner, because that’s part of the story, and that’s what everybody knows about Shogun. But if you took him out, probably 90% of the series would be exactly the same. Maybe in the final episodes, which I haven’t seen, he will come through and save the day and do something important.
But if you compare it to the 70s version where John Blackthorne is the center of the action, here he’s not the center of the action. And you realize, oh, he’s this person who’s just constantly complaining. He’s constantly complaining about not getting enough to do. Can’t you just put me back on my boat? And the answer is no, because we’ve moved on. And so now we realize that the story of the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate is a Japanese story in the same way that the Vietnam War is a Vietnamese story.

Jon Wiener:   Very good.

John Powers: But in narrative terms, it does skew things weirdly because you still have to have the romance plot a bit, and you still have to have the white guy there, but you do as you’re watching it, think you don’t have to have the white guy there. Why is he there?
The other thing changing over 40 years is the Japanese people now don’t speak halting English. They actually get to speak fluent Japanese.  And yet on the other hand, we don’t care. The Sympathizer, which is the obvious comparison point, is about west and east also, but it still has a sting and a reality to us. Whereas the battle between the English and the Portuguese over Japanese rights, or Catholicism and Protestantism, that doesn’t really sting very much, and there’s nothing going on in the surface about what it’s actually about. Whereas “The Sympathizer” really raises all sorts of questions along the way, and you think, oh, this is really alive to the present moment. And Shogun is a very enjoyable enough show to watch, with great production values and attractive people and all the rest, but there’s nothing at stake for us when we’re watching it–except narratively.

Jon Wiener: Also, I just want to say that the costumes, the setting, the scenery are lavish and magnificent.

John Powers: They are all of those things, and yet what’s interesting is that it’s not calendar art, but it’s more beautiful in that kind of way, whereas the beauty of something like “The Sympathizer” is a more kinetic and urgent beauty that feels modern. The other is more pictorially beautiful rather than cinematically beautiful.

Jon Wiener: Excellent. “Shogun,” 10 episodes on Hulu and FX.
So in conclusion, from our review of “The Sympathizer,” “Manhunt”, ‘A Gentleman in Moscow” and “Shogun,” I conclude that Prestige TV is not just alive and well, but thriving this season.

John Powers: I think all four of these shows are worth some attention. “The Sympathizer” clearly to my mind being the best of them. But this version of “Shogun” clearly being an advance beyond the one that was a huge hit in the non-Prestige TV days. “Gentleman in Moscow” is a very enjoyable show, and “Manhunt”’s a well-made show. It has good actors. It is spooky. It teaches you something you didn’t know about America. And as you say, has an interesting contemporary resonance that, I bet you,the people who made it did feel by the time they were making it. I’m sure they felt that there’s a contemporary resonance. Fascinating.

Jon Wiener:   John Powers, he’s a critic at large on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. John, thank you for talking with us today.

John Powers:   It is always my pleasure, Jon.

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