Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: When Bad Isn’t So Good

This episode opens with Eugene gifting Rusty, a recurring bad kid, with a sundae. This is part of a rewards program for struggling kids. Rusty got some good grades, which is pretty rare for him, hence, sundae. Sitting nearby is Sam Johnson, recurring mostly-good kid. Sam is jealous. He nearly always gets good grades. He also generally has to pay for his sundaes. This doesn’t seem to add up.

Rusty comments that if Sam wants to get rewarded for being good behavior, he’s got to step up his being-bad game. See, Sam is good so often, it’s not interesting or noteworthy. Nobody wants to encourage him to be better because he’s clearly already got the idea. When Rusty is good, on the other hand, it’s such a rare event that everyone bends over backwards trying to encourage him to keep it up.

Now, here I feel the need to point out that Focus on the Family, the organization that produces AIO, is skeptical of positive behavioral support systems. They prefer to just spank the bad out of kids… God I wish I was being snarky and not just literally reporting on their belief system. When I initially prepared for this review, I intended to talk a lot more about that, but honestly, all that stuff doesn’t come up often on AIO. In the literature they market to parents, yes, absolutely, but this isn’t a review of their parenting literature. So, I’m going to acknowledge all that, but this is not the place to unpack it.

Back to the episode. The show now cuts to our B plot, which has Regis Blackgaard, beleaguered Shakespearean actor, getting cited for a few fire and safety violations at his theater. A few here meaning, quote, “thirty-two odds and ends, plus you need a sprinkler system.” Regis is understandably upset. The Harlequin Theater is already struggling, and these modifications will take both time and money that he barely has. Odyssey isn’t exactly a cultural hotspot, and he has to work hard to convince people to give classic theater a try.

Still, he tries to look on the bright side. He has an upcoming interview with the most popular local radio program. It is a shock radio program run by a guy called Cryin’ Bryan Dern, but Regis is trying not to think about that.

Bryan Dern isn’t exactly into the artistic aspects of the play, and tries to bait Regis into talking about anything more juicy. Regis knows exactly what Dern is doing, but in his current mood, it’s hard to resist a platform to rant about the failed safety inspection. This turns into a long tirade on municipal regulations, permits and bureaucracy as a whole. People call in with their own rants, and Dern is into it. He offers Regis a recurring guest spot complaining about red tape and city workers. This conflicts with Regis’s artistic sensibilities. Dern clarifies that this is a paid position, and that artistic integrity dries right up.

Meanwhile, Sam gives being bad a try. Since Rusty got his ice cream for his grades, what better place to be bad than at school? So Sam intentionally turns in a test without any answers. But as it turns out, the test itself was misprinted, and it won’t count towards anyone’s grade. In fact, based on Sam’s good reputation, the teacher just assumes Sam noticed the error all on his own. On his first try, Sam has already learned something about himself; he has the worst luck at being bad.

Rusty takes pity on the poor little good kid, and decides to give him some bad kid tutoring. He’s basically the anti-Chidi.

After a few weeks on Dern’s program, Regis decides to take on the volunteer fire department. It isn’t that the fire department is bad, but they aren’t professionals, and Regis thinks that reflects poorly on the city. He might genuinely be irritated by this, or he might just be running low on material. Either way, it’s a fairly petty rant. A firefighter calls him up to defend his people. He announces that they’ll be protesting at the theater, and this rattles Regis. Dern talks him down, by pointing out that there’s no publicity like a bit of controversy. So Regis decides to keep doing the program.

The A and B plots dovetail when we learn that Rusty isn’t thrilled about Regis’ program either. His dad is a city worker, so he takes the talk show personally. He decides to take Sam on a bad kid tour. They’re going to hit the Harlequin Theater, but on their way, they swing by Bernard Walton’s place and Rusty tells Sam to shatter a piece of glass. Sam throws a rock, but it just bounces off. He throws the rock again. More bouncing. He starts shouting and pounding on the glass. Bernard shows up and Rusty bails on Sam.

Bernard tries to pull Sam away, and Sam rants that the glass won’t break. Bernard says of course it won’t, it’s unbreakable glass. He’s replacing the windows of the bank. Sam shouts in frustration about how hard it is to be bad, and Bernard is fairly confused.

Sam explains that he thinks that if he doesn’t do bad things, he won’t be given ice cream sundaes for being good. Bernard gives the perfect response; so what? Being good isn’t about being rewarded. The rewards for being good are incidental. The real rewards of being good aren’t anything tangible. Being a good person is an end in it’s own right.

Sam realizes how stupid he’s been, and runs off to stop Rusty. Rusty slips into the Harlequin Theater, in the middle of the firefighter’s protest, with a fistful of cherry bombs. His plan is to freak Regis out in the middle of his rehearsal.

Sam tries to stop him, but Rusty throws the bombs anyway. A curtain in the stage catches fire, and Regis gets a sudden, intense lesson in why the city thinks he should have a sprinkler system. Sam runs outside to alert the firefighters, who, despite their animosity towards Regis, rush in and save the day.

Regis gives his last performance on the Cryin’ Bryan Dern show, which is an apology for all his previous bits. He saves a special shoutout for the brave, hardworking volunteer fire department.

He also thanks Sam Johnson for his quick thinking. Sam talks to Bernard about how he’s glad he did the right thing, reward or not, and while they’re talking Eugene comes up and gives Sam a sundae on the house. Bernard remarks that being good is it’s own reward, but an ice cream sundae every now and then doesn’t hurt either.

I work in special ed, mainly with kids who have behavioral issues. Positive reinforcement is a huge part of my work, and I stand by it as an important element. Good behavior is a skill that takes practice and hard work. Little kids often aren’t cognitively ready to understand all the benefits of being a good, kind person, and more tangible rewards help them along the way. Eventually they become able to understand the more subtle, longterm benefits of being good, and the reinforcements become unnecessary.

Given all that, and what I know about Focus on the Family, the opening scene of this episode made me prepared to eviscerate their misunderstanding of positive reinforcement. But, honestly, I’ve seen kids act exactly like Rusty. They’ll act a little bad, and then, as soon as an adult’s eyes are on them, they turn it around and become pointedly, performatively good. You feel like you have to reinforce them for turning their behavior around, but at the same time, there’s this sense that they have not remotely gotten the point. Worse, I’ve met some adults who still act this way.

Rewards might have their place, but they aren’t the only part of the picture. I remember one kid I worked with who had a behavior reward system. He got red, yellow or green stamps at the end of various activities, and then he went to talk to a behavioral specialist at the end of the day. If he got mostly green stamps, he could pick something from a prize box. But the most important thing the specialist did was ask him how he felt about how he did. Over the weeks, I could see the wheels in his head turning, as he noticed that how well he did changed how he felt about himself. He learned to feel proud of himself when he worked hard and followed the rules. He also felt bad when he didn’t do well, but not in a hopeless, “that’s just the way I am” way. He started to see his behavior as something he could practice and get better at, and that the benefits of that work went far beyond a sticker book or a candy necklace.

Now, this episode doesn’t go into all that, but I think, for a twenty minute comedy, it’s a good introduction to the idea that rewards aren’t the real point of being good.  And I think the sundae at the end was a good acknowledgement that, as adults, we do sometimes have to remember that the kids who are good at being good might still need a little encouragement as well.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Bryan Dern tries to tell the firefighters that they shouldn’t protest, because Regis has the right to speak his opinions. The firefighters come back with, “and so do we,” with this perfect mic drop intonation. It’s beautiful.

Worst Part: Again, not a lot of bad scenes in this one. I think I found the coincidence of the misprinted test a little annoying, but it’s a minor blemish on an otherwise solid, entertaining episode.

Story Rating: The dialog and events had a good rhythm, the jokes were mostly at least smile worthy, the setups all paid off well and the two plot lines tied together neatly without feeling contrived. A+

Moral Rating: Valid criticisms of a flawed approach that leaves room for acknowledgement of it’s place. Ties in well with the story, and is clear but doesn’t over-explain itself. A+

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