A while ago I did a standard review of the episode Bad Company, and on reflection I don’t think I did a good job expressing what truly bothered me about it. I spent too much time snarking and not enough time analyzing.
To recap, this episode has two plots. In one, Donna Barclay hangs out with her friend Rachel, who is no longer a Christian. Rachel shoplifts, abandons Donna with a mall cop, lets her take all the consequences and even mocks her for being a sucker. In the other, Connie goes to a Bible study with one of her friends, only to discover that the man leading it has radically different views from her mentor Whit. She comes back confused on several theological points, and Whit’s answer is that she was wrong to have tried a new Bible study to begin with. He doesn’t counter the other leader’s logic or reasoning at all. He just dismisses it and says that Connie should have focused on just learning Whit’s version of Christianity, which is obviously correct because…..
It just is, okay?
What stood out to me most about Bad Company isn’t that both Rachel and the alternative Bible study teacher were wrong, but that Connie and Donna were treated as wrong to even give them a chance. They were both warned to be careful, punished for reaching out, and praised for deciding to avoid people like that. The teacher was not a bad person, just a person who disagreed with Whit, and while Rachel was genuinely awful, this was treated as an inevitable consequence of her lack of faith.
I’ve talked about other awful AIO episodes. I’ve reviewed one where Connie learns she is a fundamentally horrible person, because she can’t be perfectly patient a hundred percent of the time. I’ve reviewed one that tells kids with anxiety disorders that if they can’t banish all their fear, it’s because they don’t love God enough. Most recently, I reviewed a lesson about Christmas charity that consists almost entirely of racist tropes. I’ve certainly established that AIO can churn out terrible morals. But I don’t think that’s what is worst about them.
Even shows I love sometimes have an episode with really messed up messages; Doctor Who comes to mind, and it’s my favorite show of all time. But the thing about Doctor Who is that overall, it celebrates adventure, empathy and intelligence. Watching it makes me want to go to new places, help people who are hurting, and educate myself. The bad messages that pop up every so often in an episode are balanced out by a series-wide message that encourages me to grow as a person.
Adventures in Odyssey is just the opposite. There are episodes with messages that are pretty good. But looking back, I don’t think I can attribute much personal growth to them. The underlying message of the series is to distrust outsiders and to trust authority without question, but only authorities AIO itself approves of. They will brand their truth as God’s, but they demand that you take their word for it that, of all Christian interpretations out there, they are the ones who have it all figured out.
Realizing this difference between episodic messages and series wide themes made me realize I can’t approach this series like my other reviews. In my reviews of Veggie Tales and The Screwtape Letters, I worked hard to present a balanced, fair analysis. For both of them, I could produce sincere praise. Chapter by chapter, The Screwtape Letters had many ideas I disagreed with, but ultimately it was about knowing yourself and trying to become a better person. Story by story, Veggie Tales had a couple morals that were under-thought, but ultimately it was about telling kids they were loved and should pass love on to others. I can get behind all that. But the only constant assertion of Adventures in Odyssey is that Whit, mouthpiece of the show, is always right.
Because of this, trying to review the “good episodes” of AIO makes me feel like a placating doormat. I don’t want to paint it in the worst light; this was still a big part of my childhood. I’d love to be nostalgic. But the truth is, when I try to do a positive review, it comes out something like, “yeah, some characters did bad things and then there were consequences but then forgiveness so I guess everything is fine here.” The reviews feel phoned it, because the episodes they were based on felt phoned in.
I wondered about the incredible blandness, and I realized that the writers are constantly held back by the need to reaffirm the same morals over and over again, to stick to the official script, and above all to not inspire out of the box thinking. As a result, the morality tales, while technically good, don’t ever exactly move me to become a better person. AIO has the most depth and conviction behind it, not when it is portraying real goodness, but when it is conjuring up a battle of good and evil, where good is Odyssey and evil is everything outside its borders.
Furthermore, the show never gets better. I’ve already sampled episodes from across about a decade, and if anything the quality is definitely declining. This is what happens when you set yourself up to be above criticism. You weed out people who would tell you that you could stand to improve. So, of course, a show created by people with that approach never improves. It either stagnates or degrades. And it takes it’s captive audience along with it.