John Powers

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Things are looking bright for pessimists these days — the world has caught up with their sense of gloom. Well over half of those living in the developed world think their countries are heading in the wrong direction, away from the prosperity and stability that people over age 40 once took for granted.

Sequels have come to seem inescapable in movies and TV, where the commercial logic is to keep a franchise going — even if it has nowhere to go. That's why I was leery of Season 2 of Big Little Lies. I'd been a fan of the original HBO series, a sneaky deep blend of satire and mystery that built to a satisfying finale in which its sexually violent villain is killed and the show's five heroines testify that his death was an accident. The story was over. But the show was too successful to end.

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When Lena Dunham's Girls appeared seven years ago, it cleared the path for a parade of smart, provocative television shows about smart, provocative young heroines.

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This is FRESH AIR. Over the past 40 years, Sir David Attenborough has become internationally known and respected for his groundbreaking documentary shows about the natural world. His new eight-part series "Our Planet" is currently streaming on Netflix. Our critic at large John Powers says this one is different.

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It's a commonplace that we never really know other people, not even those we love. This idea gets pushed to the limit in Mrs. Wilson, a new three-part drama from PBS' Masterpiece starring the electric English actress Ruth Wilson, whom you may know from Luther and The Affair. Based on the bizarre true story of Wilson's grandparents, Mrs.

It is the dream of every neglected artist that their work will be redeemed by posterity. And sometimes it is. Back in 1970, for instance, the big movie was Patton — a box office hit that won the Best Picture Oscar. But today, it's overshadowed by another film from that year that almost nobody saw, a gritty story about a drifting woman.

It has become the nature of television to ramp up everything, even things that don't need it — like murder. We've grown so accustomed to seeing hot-button crimes and high-powered cops that it feels almost radical when a crime show goes in the other direction and plays it straight.

About halfway through John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, its wise old hero George Smiley is discussing the inherent paradox of the cover stories that spies adopt. "The more identities a man has," Smiley says, "the more they express the person they conceal."

This fan-dance of identity — with its many concealments and revelations — is central to American Spy, an excitingly sharp debut novel by the talented newcomer Lauren Wilkinson.

When people talk about art, they often argue over whether individual works can be truly universal. One who thinks they can is Asghar Farhadi, the gifted Iranian filmmaker who in recent years has won foreign film Oscars for both A Separation and The Salesman.

April will mark the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a 100-day period in which world leaders stood idly by as more than 800,000 people — Tutsi minorities and moderate Hutus — were murdered by the majority Hutus, who had been whipped into a homicidal frenzy by their leaders.

It's impossible to talk about Great Britain these days without talking about Brexit, the United Kingdom's pending departure from the European Union. Of course, it's easier to say you're leaving a longtime partnership than to do it, and two and a half years after the referendum that decided the issue, what leaving means is still unknown.

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If any image haunts TV news, and perhaps our conscience, it's the seemingly ceaseless river of migrants seeking refuge from war, dictatorship and poverty. These desperate souls inspire pity, fear and election-year arguments about whether to offer them welcome or keep them out.

It's that time of the year when critics proudly unveil their "10 Best" lists. But every December, I find myself compiling a private list that's different and guiltier. I call it my Ghost List, and it's composed of all the terrific things I've read, watched or heard that, for reasons ranging from bad timing to laziness — yes, critics can be lazy — I didn't get around to praising on Fresh Air. This year, I've decided to rectify that by conjuring up six ghosts I wish I'd shared with you earlier.

The most intractable conflict in modern life is the battle between those who want society to be somehow pure — religiously, say, or racially — and those who see society as an ever-changing mix and actually prefer it that way. You could hardly find a more horrific example of this split than the Islamic State's terror attack on the proudly diverse city of Paris.

If you asked me the difference between modern American novels and modern French ones, I'd start by saying, the French ones are shorter.

Now, I realize this isn't universally true — Proust's In Search of Lost Time makes The Great Gatsby look as thin as a SIM card. But where our writers tend to fatten their books in hopes of the Great American Novel, France has a taste for elegant concision that runs from Gide through Camus to the 2014 Nobel Laureate, Patrick Modiano. French readers don't feel cheated if a book runs only 120 pages.

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If you asked me the scariest place I've ever been, I would instantly say the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, whose cruel past has led to a disastrous present. I'll never forget lying in my hotel bed and hearing the nightly machine gun fire on the nearby streets. And this was during peacetime, not during Congo's two largely ignored wars of the 1990s and early 2000s that killed three times as many people as the current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria combined.

If the detective was the defining pop hero of the 20th century, in the 21st, it's the hacker. From The Matrix to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — not to mention Julian Assange and Edward Snowden — hackers have become inescapable.

After the Republicans held their lively first debate, you heard people saying what they always say nowadays — that our media-driven political discourse has become shallow and petty, even clownish. Hearing this, an innocent young person might believe that, not so long ago, America was a latter-day Athens in which political arguments were magnificent in their purity and eloquence.

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Back in college English, I was taught that it was foolish to think that fictional characters have any reality beyond the page. You shouldn't speculate about how many children Lady Macbeth had or what job Holden Caulfield wound up doing as a grown-up.

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In his famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler put down the classic British mystery, making fun of its arcane killings and hokey air of gentility. He preferred the tough American style and praised Dashiell Hammett for, as he put it, taking murder out of the vicar's rose garden and dropping it in the alley where it belonged.

It seems like there's always some writer you're supposed to be reading. These days, it's Karl Ove Knausgaard, the 46-year-old Norwegian whose six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical novel, My Struggle, has become a literary sensation. Over the past couple of years, I haven't been able to go to a social gathering without someone asking what I thought of his work. When I've said that I hadn't read a word, they would look genuinely startled and tell me, "You have to."

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