Steven S. Drachman: The Good Place nears its end; Robyn Hitchcock keeps going; and a Photographic Journey to North Korea sees print
Robyn Hitchcock, still Rolling Along
I first saw Robyn Hitchcock in Manhattan sometime in the early or mid-1980s; maybe it was at the Peppermint Lounge. If so, it was before 1985 (when the joint finally shut down for good). I know that Mike Chandler and his band, The Raunch Hands, were the opening act, because that’s who I came to see. But I left, that night, as a devoted Hitchcockian.
So it was nice to see Hitchcock perform on Thursday in Brooklyn at a club called Murmrr. (Well, it’s a pretend club called Murmrr. It was really the sanctuary of a huge old shul, but everyone mostly pretended it wasn’t a shul.) Tanya Donelly was originally slated to open, but she cancelled due to laryngitis, and as a result, fans got twice as much Hitchcock.
In the many many years since it became clear that he would never be a household name, Hitchcock has built an enthusiastic cult, which is based as much on his off-kilter personality and stream of consciousness narration as it is on his catchy folk-new-wavy tunes. His instructions to “Justin” in the sound-booth were amusingly bizarre (“Justin,” he urged at one point, “for this next song, make me sound like an asparagus”), as were his rambling disquisitions on death and his one-eyed cat, Tubby, who, if you believe Hitchcock, is charged with delivering his latest music single to fans in an antique airplane.
His singing was really particularly strong (especially on The Lizard), and he dusted off pared-down versions of old favorites like “The Man Who Invented Himself,” “Balloon Man” and “One Long Pair of Eyes,” but he also highlighted his terrific new song, Sunday Never Comes from the terrific new movie, Juliet, Naked. He and his partner, the charming and talented Emma Swift, also teamed up effectively for a few Dylan standards at the end of the show.
It seems to me that if back in 1984 Hitchcock had achieved the success of, say, Howard Jones, his work today, and his relationship with his fans, could not possibly be as interesting as it is. He’s a musician who still matters.
The Final Season of The Good Place: Is it Stupid, or Deceptively Brilliant?
“Let’s hope our early success makes up for the embarrassing mess we’ve become, like Facebook, or America.” — Eleanor Shelstrop
Spoilers for Season 1 and the Final Season of the Good Place Follow
Oh for the days when a TV critic could actually write about a TV show without having to warn his audience that he might actually say something about the show.
Spoiler alert! The Mary Tyler Moore Show is about Mary Richards, a TV producer in Minneapolis. The anchorman, Ted, is kind of stupid.
You really cannot say anything about The Good Place without spoiling it.
So here we go. In Season 1, the truly terrible Eleanor arrives in Heaven, and it soon becomes clear that she’s been mistaken for another Eleanor Shelstrop, who was a real saint. Panicked, Eleanor desperately tries to become good, soliciting the help of Chidi, a professor of philosophy. But by the end of Season 1, Eleanor realizes that this isn’t the good place at all. It’s the bad place, and it’s all been a terrifically clever kind of punishment – Hell is Hell only because of the terrible people there.
A muddled final season? Or are they setting us up?
By the final season (the first half of the season ended this past Thursday, competing with Hitchcock’s show), the show’s creators have posited that in today’s interconnected world, it is in fact impossible to be good, and that even judging any of us is terrible unfair. So the show’s characters have made a bet with the Overlords of the Hereafter: deposit a random assortment of humans into the show’s quaint streetscape, and if, sheltered from the moral quandaries of the mortal world, they quickly improve ethically, then the human race will be saved from destruction.
This idea is, indeed, completely inconsistent with the message of Season One.
Furthermore, if one believes (as religions generally do) that the mortal world’s quandaries are in fact the very test that will decide whether one gets into the Good Place, then removing the test and depositing a bunch of wretches into Heaven – skipping the test and going straight to the reward – really makes no sense at all. And from a psychological perspective, if you tell those very wretches that they’re in Heaven (that, in fact, they’re not wretched at all, they’re good), then why would they wish to improve morally?
At any rate, it’s been a boring, redundant and philosophically muddled half-season. One hopes it will improve when it returns in January.
A celebration of … North Korea? Really?
Model City Pyongyang, by Cristiano Bianchi and Kristina Drapic, is a terrific book of photography, a survey of what turns out to be the incredibly beautiful capital of North Korea. One does not need to be a “fan” of totalitarian despotism to admire the artistry here and to wonder, after all, what is the real story: how did one of the poorest, most isolated countries in the world accomplish such artistic feats of engineering?
Still a mysterious place
Is there something we do not know?
While the sites have mostly been swept clear of citizens for the photographs (how I would like to have seen the beautiful Mangyongdae Children’s Palace swarming with tykes!) there is clearly some kind of interesting life going on in this city of 3 million.
The facts do suggest some weird, completely isolated but not-entirely-unsuccessful economy in the Hermit Kingdom; we learn that a trolley token costs 5 won per trip, and that the North Korean won is worth one-nine-thousandth of a dollar. Each trolley trip in the capital city, in other words, costs a tiny fraction of a penny, and keeps the city humming.
A weird, fascinating and still-unexplored place.
Image of Mirae Scientists Street, from Model City Pyongyang.
Steven S. Drachman is the author of the Watt O’Hugh historical fantasy trilogy. The final book, Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead, is available in trade paperback from your favorite local independent bookstore, from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and on Kindle.