In the series of Veggie Tales reviews that I just wrapped up, I sometimes agreed with the moral and sometimes didn’t, but overall I could respect the basic intent and approach of the show. Furthermore, over the years as I’ve detoxed from harmful ideas that my conservative Christian upbringing immersed me in, Veggie Tales doesn’t come to mind often as a bad influence. Mostly I think it taught me good lessons. I can’t say the same thing about an equally integral part of my childhood; Adventures in Odyssey. Jesus Christ, that show.
Adventures in Odyssey is a radio drama produced by Focus on the Family, an organization designed to fund and promote all of the icky conservative things, from abstinence only sex ed to conversion therapy. Its founder is James Dobson, who also founded the Family Research Council, the organization whose name is code for “the research says gay and straight families are equally good, but lets pretend that it says the opposite of that.” This isn’t shocking because Dobson really loves misrepresenting research. I could rant about Dobson is for ages, but instead I’ll link to this post by Sirius Bizinus, which goes into more of his terrible advice to straight spouses and parents. Trigger warning for the world’s worst solution to domestic abuse.
On to the review. Odyssey is a small Midwestern town where a kindly, wise old man named Whit teaches kids valuable life lessons about how awesome conservative Christian values are. He owns Whit’s End, which is, well, here’s how it went when I tried to describe it to a friend.
Me: So, its all very religion themed and has books and displays about the Bible, but its not a church. It’s a kid’s hangout with games and activities and things, but its also kind of a restaurant. At least, it has ice cream and pizza? You can just leave your kids there and they’ll hang out being all wholesome and Christian.
Friend: Sounds like a Chuck-E-Cheese for Jesus.
Me: …yeah okay, that’s exactly what it is.
The trouble with Adventures in Odyssey was how, unlike Veggie Tales, it was tinged with a jingoistic self-righteousness, even at the best of times. Its a very “what happened to the good old days?” show, and people are often understood to be bad simply because they wear the wrong kinds of clothes, listen to loud music, or even come from a big city.
A perfect example of this is “Connie Comes to Town,” the episode that introduced my favorite character. The official moral is supposedly about being content. With Odyssey, you never have to guess these things, because an annoying woman named Chris opens the episode with a lecture and closes it with a Bible verses to reassure us that its sufficiently Christian. For the record, I found her annoying long before I was an atheist. Her voice has that gratingly artificial cheerfulness to it. She opens this episode with that “grass is always greener” cliche, and closes by clarifying that while simply being positive is a step in the right direction, the real secret to contentment is serving Jesus Christ. So, how does the middle support this aphorism sandwich?
Whit is overwhelmed at Whit’s End. There are crowds of kids and no one but him to manage things. He tells his friend Tom Riley how hard it is to find good help. Apparently he’s a bit particular, which is why, when Connie Kendall walks off the street looking for directions to a completely different place she’s applying to, he hires her on the spot.
Connie’s parents just divorced, and she moved to Odyssey with her Mom. She’s trying to earn enough money to move herself back to Los Angeles and live with her Dad (her Mom doesn’t know this plan). Also, she’s not very religious. All of that is enough to establish that she’s a soul in desperate need of saving. Not going to church every single Sunday is bad enough, but add a big city and a tragically broken home (nobody from a good wholesome place like Odyssey would ever consider divorce), and clearly she’s a walking cry for help.
We are also introduced to Bobby, a preteen who is bored with the small town where there’s nothing to do but the Bible Bowl, which is this epic game where Whit, um, asks people questions about the Bible. Whit is sympathetic towards Bobby, albeit in a vaguely patronizing “I know how it is for you young people” way. Dreaming of a world where the trivia nights dare to dabble in sports records and US history is clearly a foolish adolescent phase.
Of course, Bobby develops a passionate crush on either Connie, or possibly the very concept of LA. I think for him the two are pretty much inseparable. He decides to run away to LA with her, fantasizing about being the big strong boyfriend who protects her with all his twelve year old might.
Initially, Whit raises some valid concerns about Connie’s plan while also acknowledging that it’s her choice. But when Bobby tells Whit he plans to go with her, Whit flips out. Oh, and he doesn’t talk to Bobby, or even Bobby’s parents. The blame for all this is placed squarely on Connie. Nevermind that it wasn’t her idea. Nevermind that she wasn’t even aware of how serious he was. (Bobby offhandedly brought it up once and she changed the subject. She is genuinely shocked when Whit brings it up again.) Whit lectures her on how impressionable the kid is and how he has a crush on her, as if any of that is her fault.
When pointing out her absolute lack of knowledge or intention to encourage Bobby just motivates Whit to say things like this.
“Every time you come in contact with another human being, something happens. Neither one of you is ever quite the same again.”
“You can’t drift through life thinking you aren’t going to influence anybody. God made each and every one of us dependent on each other, and he wants us to feel some responsibility for one another.”
“What kind of world are we going to have if nobody cares about anybody else?”
All of which is completely irrelevant to the situation at stake. The issue is not that Connie doesn’t care for anybody but herself. The next couple of episodes establish just the opposite. The issue is that Whit is taking a situation outside of her control or knowledge and making it her responsibility. Finally, Connie asks for some concrete suggests about what the hell she should do. Cut to…
Connie leading the Bible Bowl. This fixes everything, because reasons. She decides that the only reason she wanted to go back to LA was that she missed her friends, but goshdarnit, there are some lovely people right here in Odyssey. And I guess without Connie to follow Bobby’s dreams of running away just evaporate, or whatever.
Whit is way out of line to place the blame for Bobby’s plan on Connie, or to demand that she change her plans for his sake. His concerns about her leaving in the first place aren’t necessarily wrong, but are oversimplified. The episode addresses none of the following issues.
- Did Connie’s Mom have reason to believe her father was an unsuitable guardian? Later episodes say they split because he cheated on her. There’s no suggestion that he was otherwise abusive, unloving or unstable, and its weird that this episode doesn’t even bring that up.
- Was Connie given any say in which parent she stays with? It doesn’t sound like she was, which is bad. Even a minor much younger than her (she’s implied to be sixteen or seventeen) would normally have been consulted. At her age, the move will affect her high school transcripts and options for college. She has valid reasons to stay beyond “I miss my friends.” This isn’t to say running away is a good solution, but she might feel like her needs are being ignored and this is her only option.
- Is she sure her father is still living in the same place and has space for her? Does she have backup plans, like trustworthy friends she can stay with or money for a bus ticket back?
- Has Connie thought of what she will do if something goes wrong on the trip itself? The episode makes a big deal about how dangerous the bus trip from Illinois to California is for a young woman (what, you were expecting this show to be sexism free?), but when she insists on going, nobody gives her advice on how to make it safer. Fear mongering is no substitute for suggesting she hide some extra money in her shoes.
Maybe LA is the best place for Connie. Or, maybe she did need to learn how to be content where she was and see what Odyssey has to offer, before running off and scaring the shit out of her Mom. Where are the discussions that empower her to make a better decision, rather than guilt-tripping her into complying with the opinions of the Designated Moral Guardian?
This is unfortunately typical of Adventures in Odyssey’s approach. Even when it advocates caring for others, it fails to take the real needs of a person into consideration, just as it advocates learning and discovery while reflexively rejecting anything that feels modern or worldly. Examples of the latter, and many, many other problematic messages, coming soon!
As always, thanks for reading.