One of my favorite shows is Arrested Development. It is, in brief, a comedy about a family of wealthy real estate tycoons who suddenly lose their good standing and fortune, and consistently fail to get it back because wacky hijinks. It also has more running gags in one episode than most comedies fit in five seasons.
One of these running gags is J. Walter Weatherman, a former employee with a prosthetic limb. Back when the main characters were all children, their father liked to teach lessons by rigging elaborate scenarios where the kids’ mistakes lead to a horrible “accident,” and J. Walter Weatherman pretends to lose his arm. Again.
These lessons are simultaneously effective and useless. The text of the lesson is absorbed. But one dramatic moment does not make for good character growth. It doesn’t teach underlying moral principles or good habits. It just scares them out of one specific bad habit. They don’t learn to be considerate, just assholes who leave notes.
Why do I bring this up? Well, I’m on the third of four episodes that summarize Adventures in Odyssey’s approach to self-improvement. The first two that I reviewed brought up some valid criticisms of mainstream methods to teach kids lessons. They have a decent grasp on certain things that don’t work, or don’t work as well as we sometimes wish they do. But now I’m going to talk about their favorite method to show a kid actually learning a lesson – Whit notices a character flaw and rigs a scenario where they see that the thing they are doing is Bad.
The episode opens with Cody, a new kid in Odyssey. To help him fit in, some kids are making him a super special sandwich for lunch. Ingredients already assembled include salami, mayonnaise, peanut butter and green beans. With donations from the large assembled crowd, they polish it off with banana peel, broccoli, liverwurst, and pickled pig’s feet.
Yeah, by “help fit in” they mean, “gang up on and pressure into doing embarrassing things.” And the sad thing is, he does it. With the group cheering him up, he takes a big bite out of the sandwich.
Well, they were clearly going for a mixture of “aww, poor kid” and “ew ew ew!”, so, mission accomplished.
Next, we meet Jared, who won’t let his friend Sarah play in the Bible Room, because “she’s doing it wrong.” Not sure how you play wrong, but apparently she was. They argue back and forth, until Whit separates them, and gives Jared a pretty solid lecture about how people need to make mistakes in order to explore and grow. Jared says he gets it, but he’s clearly just trying to get out of the conversation, as it takes about two and a half seconds for him to criticize another kid for carrying books wrong. Seriously.
Cody’s father comes by to pick him up. Cody is hanging out alone, looking at Bible maps. Cody’s father is worried that Cody doesn’t have friends and is willing to do anything for attention. He tells Whit the sandwich story, and about some other incidents. Cody’s character is fleshed out; he is generally a follower, not a leader, but he has never been this bad. He used to be able to use a modicum of common sense, instead of just going along with anything and anyone. Cody’s father asks Whit to keep an eye on him, and maybe help him make some better friends. Whit promises to do what he can.
So far, it’s a dang good episode. It’s funny, the characters are interesting, and Cody’s Dad has some great insights into what may be going on with Cody, and what might help him.
We get another scene of Cody being taken advantage of. The same kid who made him the sandwich has invited him to join a club, but part of the initiation is giving the founding members toys. Suuure, not suspicious at all, that. Cody delivers a remote controlled car and a baseball bat, and is rewarded with a time and an address. Which actually does lead him to a club meeting. It’s just that the club is a bunch of old ladies doing aerobics.
Worse, they decide he’s so cute, they start badgering him to join them, and because he can’t say no… Well, at least it’s healthier than a banana peel sandwich.
When Cody goes to Whit’s End that afternoon, every muscle in his body is burning. He walks in on Whit trying once again to talk to Jared about his bossiness. Seeing the bossiest kid in Odyssey next to the biggest pushover in Odyssey gives Whit an idea.
The next day, Cody and Jared meet at Whit’s End, and he gives them a job. He has some soda bottles for them to deliver to Tom Riley, and he will pay them for their help. Now, naturally Whit can get the bottles to Tom Riley any time. The real point is the map. Cody loves maps, and Jared has a notoriously bad sense of direction. So this task will force them to switch roles; Cody has to lead, and Jared has to follow.
Yeah, this doesn’t go well. Jared insists on taking the lead, and Cody caves quickly. They take the wrong path out of the town and hit a dead end, but Jared insists on pressing forward through the brush. He runs into a barbed wire fence and scratches himself, but, determined to not be wrong, he decides the fence is a good sign. It must mark the beginning of Tom Riley’s farm. Cody makes some effort to stand up for himself, but Jared becomes all the more determined to prove himself right.
They wander on. It gets dark, and they start hearing things. Then a mysterious animal emerges and starts following them. They panic and run, and Jared trips in the dark and sprains his ankle, leaving them both helpless as the animal bears down on them.
It’s a sheep, which makes them both feel rather sheepish. It also makes Cody realize that they are not on Tom’s farm at all. Tom has apples and horses, not sheep. Cody carries Jared back to the edge of the farm, following the map. The fight has all gone out of Jared.
Whit finds them. He was expecting them to reach Tom long ago, and eventually realized Cody and Jared were in trouble. So he came out looking for them. As they are explaining the story he looks over the pair of them, and points out how Cody stood up for himself, and he is fine. An explicit parallel is drawn between him, the good kid who took the lead and was unhurt, and Jared, the bad kid who scratched his hand and sprained his ankle. This is supposed to be Cody’s big epiphany moment.
There are two things that really bug me here. First, Whit acts like Cody’s relative health is a natural consequence of his good decisions. It’s not. Cody could easily have cut himself on the fence or been the one who tripped. Or he could have easily gotten lost or hurt on his way back in the dark, after he made the right decision. The story contrived the outcome it wanted, and that’s shitty writing.
Second, Whit tries to act like he simultaneously expected that they would follow directions, and that this is how he knew it would turn out all along. Bull. Shit. Whit knew damn well Jared wouldn’t like listening to Cody give him directions, and he knew that Cody probably wouldn’t stand up for himself. He knew he was sending them into a pretty isolated area where they could easily get lost if they went off the map. What he didn’t know was that Cody would end unharmed. And for the record, I think he’s especially a dick for being fine with Jared being hurt. Jared is an ass, but he’s still a kid, and Whit is responsible for his safety.
Third is that, as I explained in the J. Walter Weatherman bit, epiphany moments don’t work in real life, especially when they are forced and manipulated. Sometimes they can lead to a renewed resolution to change, but real character growth takes time and practice.
But the episode actually seems to acknowledge this, as the final scene shows Cody’s Dad taking him to get his things back from the boy who took advantage of him. Cody’s Dad is in the car right outside for moral support, and Cody nearly throws up from the anxiety, but he gets his car and his bat back. His Dad says that, while he’s got a ways to go, he is making a good start.
What’s maddening about this episode is how easily it could have been great. When Cody’s Dad asks Whit for help, he specifically asks for Whit to help Cody make friends. There are definitely some recurring characters who could be convinced to hang out with Cody and not force-feed him gross sandwiches. I also think the basic concept of giving Cody responsibility and leadership opportunities is good. With friends and a few confidence boosts, Cody would probably go back to his old self; easygoing and cooperative, but without the desperation that makes him vulnerable to manipulation. But no, that was just too mundane and sensible. We’ve got to set up this whole underhanded Jeeves-and-Wooster routine.
Whit is not so different from the father from Arrested Development. Even when given all the tools to understand why a kid acts the way they do, he feels the need to resort to manipulation. I’ve already reviewed three other episodes where Whit uses deception and elaborate staging to contrive an epiphany moment. Every one has the same flaw; real humans don’t fucking work that way.
The next episode will come from AIO’s Whit-free era, and show a bit of a different take.
Best Part: I liked Cody’s Dad a lot. He was involved but not intrusive, and willing to give support while also encouraging his kid to grow. He throws in enough snark to sound like a real person, but not so much as to sound unkind. I don’t blame him for giving the OK to Whit’s plan; we don’t know how Whit framed it. “I’d like to give your son and one of his friends an errand to run for me. I think it will help with his confidence,” sounds quite different from, “I’d like to send your weak-willed son into the woods unsupervised with a kid who is bossy to the point of borderline bullying, and this second kid also has terrible judgment. They will probably get lost, and I have no contingency plan for when that inevitably happens.”
Worst Part: Whit’s entire plan! Good god, this is not okay.
Story Rating: ….Ugh, I’m not sure. There are more good scenes than bad ones, but the payoff they lead up to is Whit’s plan and speech. It’s like eating a cake that is just coated in high quality, beautifully piped buttercream icing with fondant sculptures and caramel shards, but when you get to the cake itself, it is dry and utterly flavorless (why yes, I have been watching way too much Great British Bake Off. How did you guess?). You can heap well deserved, honest compliments on the good stuff, but in the end, the thing you were actually working up to is a disappointment. For that reason, I’m gonna have to give it a D.
Moral Rating: The explicit moral is that you should stand up for yourself when you know you’re in the right. I’m totally behind that. And there’s also some good illustration of how to actually grow and stand up for yourself, as well as the difference between being deceived and being gullible. In both cases, someone else is ultimately in the wrong, but it’s still worth being aware when you are choosing to override your own common sense.
But mixed in with all that good is the implicit assumption that it’s fine for adults to manipulate kids into learning lessons, and it’s fine to mildly endanger them, even if there was clearly a less awful approach available. I don’t think that ruined the message as much as it did the story, but I’m still going to dock points for it, because it’s a big problem. C-