Category Archives: Reviews as an Atheist

AIO Reviews on Temporarily Irregular Schedule

Hi, faithful readers. At the moment I’m in the middle of a move as well as starting a new job, and while I can still find time to write, my regular schedule has been thrown wildly off. I do not want to pause the reviews until things settle down (’cause let’s be honest, they won’t for a while) so instead I’ve given myself permission to post irregularly over the summer. My plan is to still average a review every couple of weeks, but it will be posted when it’s posted. Hopefully in the fall I will be able to resume some kind of regular day and time.

Sorry for the change, and I hope everyone is having a wonderful summer!

Advertisements

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as a Godless Heathen: Eugene’s Dilemma

After being fired from Whit’s End, Eugene has gotten a job in the computer program at Campbell County Community College. He is once again being shown around a top secret computer room. Why is this one secret?

Because it houses highly confidential information; academic records, student finances, payment methods, etc. If someone unauthorized got in, they could steal from a student or ruin their career prospects.

Now, see, that’s a legitimate reason to have a secret computer room.

Eugene’s new boss, Mr. Burgermeister, introduces him to Nicholas Adamsworth, an 11 year old computer prodigy. He is also part of a test program, where gifted orphans get to live in colleges instead of being bounced through foster homes and orphanages. He likes working in the college. He doesn’t fit in, but he misfits in a way that works for him.

Eugene himself is an orphaned prodigy. He tells Nicholas that he is impressed, as he himself only began working in advanced academics at age 13. Nicholas, in turn, is thrilled to meet an adult who knows what it’s like to be in college before your voice has cracked. They immediately settle into a nerd mentor/mentee relationship that is everything good and wholesome in this world.

Eugene next meets Richard Maxwell, who is Nicholas’s tutor and supervisor. He ribs Eugene about getting the job he wanted. Eugene doesn’t know how to interpret a joke, and Richard Maxwell doesn’t know how to talk without making them. Let’s just say they get along less well than Eugene and Nicholas do.

On to our next plot point; while doing routine spot checks of the databases, Eugene discovers a series of grades that don’t match up with earlier records. Students are recorded as receiving As in classes that they actually flunked. The mistakes are too numerous and too dramatic to be simple clerical errors.

As Eugene presses Nicholas about who has had access to these records, before Eugene came on board, he cracks and fesses up. He did it, under the coercion of Richard Maxwell (people usually call him by both of his names. I don’t know why). The motives aren’t complicated. Students wanted to pay for better grades, Richard Maxwell wanted money, and Nicholas didn’t want to be booted back to the orphanage.

This creates a serious moral dilemma for Eugene. On the one hand, if he leaves the grades alone, he is pretty much failing the one job he has. But if he turns the pair in, a vulnerable kid will leave the one place that has felt sort of like home in a long time. Eugene knows too much about what that feels like to put him through that. Not to mention that, as a test case, Nicholas’s success has implications for other kids.

Then Eugene realizes there is a way around this. All he has to do is hack back into the system, and change the grades back. The wrong is righted, and nobody would dare bring it up, because they would only incriminate themselves. The only problem is Richard Maxwell, who could give Nicholas a falsified bad report, simply for the sake of revenge. This prospect terrifies Nicholas, but Eugene swears to protect him. If Richard Maxwell starts telling lies, Eugene will fight them. Nicholas decides to trust Eugene, and they set to work fixing the grades.

Seriously, Eugene and Nicholas are too pure for this world.

Turns out, Mr. Burgermeister has been privately monitoring students’ grades, based on rumors that somebody is changing them for money. Unfortunately, he started this monitoring too late to catch it the first time around, but soon enough to catch Eugene changing them back. Which, as he doesn’t know that Eugene was actually changing them back, looks a lot like Eugene was in on the whole scam. And the only way to clear his name is to turn on Nicholas.

Eugene can’t do that. He confesses the crime to the school board… which happens to include Whit. Now, all of a sudden, Whit decides to do a more thorough investigation. He uncovers the fact that discrepancies on the records show up before Eugene’s arrival, and that his tampering seems to have corrected, rather than exacerbated the errors. While the rest of the board reviews these notes, Whit goes to talk to Eugene. Eugene says that he is taking responsibility for his department, which is what he learned from being fired at Whit’s End. But Whit is still not convinced of Eugene’s guilt. He goes over the information he found, and then is interrupted by Nicholas.

Nicholas, cinnamon roll that he is, refuses to let Eugene take the blame for his own mistakes. He makes a full confession, including implicating Richard Maxwell.

Richard Maxwell is fired, but they tell him they won’t press charges. Um… why? Seriously, why?!? His behavior was not only corrupt and criminal, but it honestly qualifies as child abuse. What’s worse, he does not seem remotely remorseful. He even brags about having another job lined up. There is no reason given for the college letting him off the hook, except that the show wants to be free to use him as a recurring character.

Nicholas gets a light reprimand and probation, but the program is safe and, now that he doesn’t have a sociopath controlling his future, he’ll probably pass that probation just fine. As for Eugene, Whit declares that these events have proven that he has learned his lesson, and offers him his old job back.

Wait, what?

Okay, if you haven’t read the previous episode review, I highly recommend that you do so now. But in summation, here’s why Eugene was fired; he did exactly what he was told to do.

No, I’m serious. Whit had a secret computer room in Whit’s End, and it included programs with government secrets, because in addition to being an all-knowing independently wealthy ice cream shop owner, he is a badass spy. And like all badass spies, he keeps confidential materials in his Jesus-themed Chuck-E-Cheese. You know, where kids come to play.

Whit showed Eugene the computer room, so he could use it to do the few legitimate programs that were necessary for running the shop. He made Eugene promise to not show the computer room to anybody, and only use it in the way he had been authorized. Eugene did not break those rules at any point. The only thing he did wrong was, one time, leave a door open, causing Connie to accidentally see and learn about the computer room. Later on, she opened one of the confidential programs, also on accident.

If Whit didn’t want this to happen, he shouldn’t have put government secrets in a Jesus-Chuck-E-Cheese!

If Eugene had committed a security breach at Whit’s End, then yeah, this would probably indicate that he had learned a valuable lesson about responsibility and whatnot. They are clearly going for the whole message of “sometimes people screw up, but when they prove that they’ve made a real commitment to not screwing up in the same way again, they deserve to be forgiven.” That’s a great message! I am one hundred percent behind it. In fact, if you listened to it on it’s own, you would probably project a story that better fits the intended narrative onto the previous episode. And therein lies the one real problem. It frames the conflict in such a way as to rewrite prior events. Growing up, I remembered this saga in a weird way. I remembered the message of “make mistakes but learn from them and you’ll be forgiven” and projected it onto a situation where an authority figure mishandled his own power and then blamed his friends and employees for it.

Of all the episodes in this whole Applesauce saga, this is probably the best. There are some troubling implications here, but they are mostly the fault of the episode that came before, and also the episodes that come immediately after. I will get to those next time, starting with the one where Connie learns her own dubious lessons.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Everything about Eugene and Nicholas’ relationship is adorable.

Worst Part: Richard Maxwell not ending up in jail.

Story Rating: Overall pretty good. Eugene’s conflict is an interesting one, you care about the characters, and the nerdy dynamic between Eugene and Nicholas makes this one entertaining as well. A

Moral Rating: As a standalone episode about justice triumphing and the bad guys getting caught, it’s a pretty standard feel good kids story. B+

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as a Godless Heathen: A Bite of Applesauce

Full disclosure; I hate the whole Garden of Eden story. I hate it because it takes this whole idea of sin and redemption, which is beautiful, and frames it in terms of “the smallest of disobediences has made you massively suck forever.” Which, you know, not so beautiful. It’s the broccoli in the General Tso’s shrimp.

I’m, uh, a pescatarian who loves the General Tso’s sauce but hates broccoli. So, you know, I order the shrimp or bean curd instead of the chicken, and then I have to spend some time picking out all the broccoli. That hopefully clarifies my choice of analogy.

Anyway, I’m now tackling AIO’s episodes on forgiveness, and I think a great place to start would be the Applesauce arc. It was AIO’s first major ongoing story, and set up the framework for most of their other arcs, so it’s good to get to it sooner or later. Plus, it revolves thematically around a very crudely done adaptation of the Garden of Eden.

Connie opens the episode by speculating about all the changes Whit is making to Whit’s End. He has apparently been tinkering all over the shop, to the point that he has probably ripped out and rewired every outlet and altered every gadget. Yet he has been very mysterious about his plans. Eugene has decided to be entirely incurious about this. He says that if Whit needed them to know, he would keep them in the loop. He even implies that Connie is being nosy and distrustful.

Frankly, we are already off to a shaky start. Just imagine your boss was rewiring your entire workplace and wouldn’t tell you why. Not even the vaguest hint. Such an extensive and time consuming change would impact you, and it’s pretty reasonable to expect to know why this is happening.

That shaky start gets even shakier when Whit comes in, pointedly invites Eugene to come take a look at something, and leaves Connie to watch the ice cream counter.

Whit is, of course, about to let Eugene in on everything he has been working on. First he takes Eugene to the office, and points out the bookshelf. The bookshelf has, among other things, a copy of The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis. In the back of this book is a key. The key fits in the lock that is next to the bookshelf.

This is not a new addition. Whit has always had a random lock in the wall next to the bookshelf in his office. Um, okay. I feel like a random person might walk in, see that, and think, “I wonder if there’s a key somewhere here that will open that lock and unveil an interesting secret,” but okay.

Anyway, the key causes the bookshelf to roll back and unveil a secret computer room. It is “state of the art,” which means we have a voice activated AI named Mabel. She’s exactly like every other AI in every other show that isn’t specifically about AIs developing homicidal self-awareness.

Whit’s big project has been hooking up every feature of Whit’s End to a computer that lets them see stats on what is being used and in what ways, with what frequency. It also provides some remote repairs, including emergency master switches. As Eugene is looking through the various programs, he notes “Applesauce,” which is entirely unfamiliar to him. Whit says he can’t tell Eugene about that one, but it is important that he never use it or open it or tell anyone about it. Which is why it is on a computer in a kid’s club, in a secret room that is perfectly hidden except for the weird giveaway lock in the wall.

Oh, and in addition to not telling anyone about Applesauce, Eugene should also not tell anybody about the computer room, including Connie.

Cut to Eugene using the computer room to shut down the trains when Whit is out, and Connie walking in on him. Ooops.

Connie is ecstatic to finally know what Whit was doing. She also thinks the computer looks cool as hell. Eugene is massively condescending. He mansplains that Mabel is artificially intelligent, and then switches to mocking her for knowing nothing about AI. Connie says that she does know something about artificial intelligence. She knows that it is kind of intelligence, but artificial.

Well, she’s got you there, Eugene.

I just want to make a quick reference back to this episode. A major plot point was that Whit never gave Connie computer training or responsibilities because she never seemed interested in technology. But here she is, clearly fascinated by a computer room. But she doesn’t get to learn about them. The one male role model in her life has intentionally shut her out, while the other is mocking her interest. Of course, in other episodes she isn’t as interested, but in the real world people who are often picked on for showing interest in something will then stop showing interest in it. So…. hashtag feminism.

Eugene shoos Connie out and swears her to secrecy, but not before she notices Applesauce and is intrigued by the word. He says she isn’t supposed to know about that either. Now, this may just be my perspective, but given that the rest of his dialog was also very belittling and “you shouldn’t know anything about that,” I didn’t think he impressed on her that there is something especially private about whatever the hell Applesauce is. It came across more like the fifth or sixth in a string of shitty condescensions.

In the next scene, Connie is starting work before either Eugene or Whit have shown up, and the trains won’t turn back on. She gets one of the older kids to watch the front while she goes to turn the trains on. Although she hasn’t been trained, she remembers how Eugene turned the trains on, and deduces from that how to turn them back on.

Again, not incompetent or uninterested in computers. Just not given the opportunities to learn how to use them. It’s also worth emphasizing that, despite the fact that Eugene and Connie are both sometimes the only one present at Whit’s End, Eugene was the only one taught how to use Mabel and the computer room.

Anyway, yay Connie! You figured out the scary technology despite the male patriarchy closing you out for no good reason! Good job performing your literal job!

Once she’s done with the trains, she totally doesn’t turn on the Applesauce program, just to see what it is.

Hang on, that sounds like sarcasm. Let me try that again.

Connie explicitly does not attempt to turn on the Applesauce program. What she does is wonder aloud about what it does, and even gets a little insecure about whether or not it might have something to do with her. But it’s just normal human shit. When somebody is keeping a secret from you, the first place your mind goes is that it’s a secret about you, no matter how much of a leap that is. She doubts Whit, but ultimately she decides to trust him, and not open the Applesauce program.

Mabel mishears her, and loads the Applesauce program. Look, we’ve all gotten into little misunderstandings with voice recognition software, and I’m saying that in 2018. This episode came out in 1989. This is so not on Connie.

She tries to turn it off. She can’t. Eugene shows up and tries to turn it off. He can’t. The program makes Whit’s End go haywire, and then when neither of them can give a password, Mabel shuts the whole shop down.

Whit shows up hours later. He hears their explanations, but doesn’t care that neither of them did anything intentionally damaging. All he can do is whine about their lack of trust in him. And then fire them both.

Aaaaaand that’s the end of the episode! No, literally, it ends on the cliffhanger of their immediate termination of employment, for, um, let’s see if I got this straight. Eugene got walked in on while doing a thing Whit explicitly trained and authorized him to do. He should have closed the door, but then, if Whit was going to have top secret computer rooms he should have maybe made them less obvious. Connie later used her initiative to fix a problem she was not trained to fix, and was then misunderstood by an overly literal AI. Whit knows this is what happened. Whit thinks this is reason enough to fire them.

In case you are unfamiliar with the Garden of Eden, the basic story is that God gives Adam and Eve a perfect paradise, with one tree they must not eat from. Eve flunks this with a little encouragement from a serpent, Adam flunks this when she points out that apples are tasty, and God throws all three of them out of paradise for not following his one rule. There are two interpretations of what the whole tree thing was about. One is that it was an arbitrary test of obedience, on which the entire fate of the universe hung. The other is that there were cosmic implications behind both the rule and the fact that the tree was a part of the Garden of Eden to begin with. The former I think establishes God as an abusive parental figure. The latter… still extremely harsh, but you know, I work in education with small children. I know how it is when you don’t have time to explain all the reasons why the rules are the rules, but it’s still legitimately important for the kids to follow it, and just trust that you have reasons. Again, pretty harsh for violation of a rule that they couldn’t adequately understand, but even with how much I hate this story I can concede this one little point to team God.

But this story sure as shit ain’t that. First, Whit was perfectly capable of saying to both Connie and Eugene, “hey, there’s a computer room back here. Mostly I want you to leave it alone, but you can use it for these few things if necessary.” Second, if he was going to keep it a secret, he could have done an actually decent job. Third, most of what was on the computer didn’t need to be a big-ass secret in the first place! It’s just basic stats and an emergency shutdown! Connie not only could have been let in on that, but she should have been. This should have all been on a regular computer in Whit’s regular office, which both Eugene and Connie could have used if needed.

Applesauce is a weird feature of the AIO universe. Whit is, of course, in addition to being an entrepreneur and eternally wise old man, an independently wealthy computer genius and superspy. I’m not exaggerating. The Whitaker family has government ties and periodically goes to do epic spy shit. In these spy-centric episodes, Applesauce comes up frequently. What it does is never clarified. Frequently it helps sabotage, but also in one episode it helps develop a scary bioweapon, and recurring villain Dr. Regius Blackgaard is often on the hunt for it. According to AIOwiki, “it has been described as powerful enough to take over the world.” All of which begs the question – deep breath – WHY THE EVERLOVING FUCK IS THIS PART OF WHIT’S END!!!!!!?????????

Whit’s End is supposed to be a safe place for kids. Applesauce is a scary government program with apocalyptic potential. These two things should not coincide.

The allusions to the Garden of Eden are not lost on your average AIO viewer; there’s a forbidden fruit, a man and a woman fuck up but really the woman is the bad one, both get cast out of paradise as punishment for their sins. We aren’t supposed to question Whit’s decision making here. We are supposed to be disappointed with Eugene and Connie, but especially Connie. There’s not enough hand flailing in the world to communicate how fucked up that is.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Connie deciding that she can be an independent person and fix the trains herself, because she is a smart young woman who cares about her job and responsibilities, and fuck the old guys who won’t teach her to use the big scary computers.

Worst Part: Whit. Just… Whit, generally.

Story Rating: Fuck this shit.

Moral Rating: Fuuuuuuck. Thiiiiiis. Shiiiiit. FFFFF-

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as a Godless Heathen: Courage to Stand

This has been one of the hardest episodes to review. I loved this episode as a kid. It was one of my favorite go to repeats. I knew from the day I started this project that I wanted to review it. But when I put it in as an adult, my opinions on it kept changing. First I was shocked by how bland and boring it was. Then I was angry at how simplistic it was, and noticed a lot of the toxic dynamics that were bothering me about other AIO episodes. Then I felt sympathetic to some aspects of the messages that I thought were aiming for something good, but definitely did not reach their target. In the end, this had to go with the meta-moralizing episodes. What is interesting here isn’t the story or the message itself, but the flaws in how they present the message, and how that ties into AIO’s approach as a whole.

Anyway, this episode opens with Robyn Jacobs talking to Connie. She is bummed about some recent events, and Connie is playing sympathetic bartender therapist. But with hot chocolate, obviously. Robyn opens the story with cheerleader tryouts. She isn’t actually that interested in cheerleading, but she wants to hang out with the cool kids. Connie nods knowingly and says that she once joined a drama club for the same reason.

Afterward the auditions, two cheerleaders, Michelle and Shannon, complimented her on her performance, but told her that being good isn’t enough. Robyn assumes they are talking about showing up for practice. But really, they are talking about the importance of being cool. If you aren’t cool, you don’t fit in with the cool kids, and that’s not cool.

Cause, you know, subtlety.

Then, out of the blue, Shannon invites her to a party. Robyn says she will come, but also asks her Mom to be sure. Her Mom is okay with it, but she insists on making Robyn ask if Shannon’s parents will be there to chaperone the party. She uses that word repeatedly, “chaperone,” and makes it clear that without a chaperone, Robyn can’t go.

Shannon translates the word “chaperone” as “babysitter.” Which is not strictly accurate. Babysitters watch people who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions because they are extremely young. Chaperones watch people who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions because they are extremely female and unmarried.

Given that these characters seem to be about 15, I’ll let you debate in the comments which word is more appropriate. I’m genuinely undecided. For me, that age is just on the edge where I would understand both the decision to cut loose and let your kids make mistakes, and the decision to still keep an eye on them. But I do think the word choice says a lot about where AIO is coming from. Their fears are not just about safety, but corruption. They are less afraid that fifteen year olds will accidentally burn the house down, more afraid that fifteen year olds will have consensual sex with other fifteen year olds.

Shannon tells Robyn if her Mom needs to hear that there will be chaperones, then she should tell her Mom that the party would be chaperoned. Robyn completely misses the fact that Shannon never actually says her parents will be there.

There is a whole other bit of dialog between Robyn and her Mom about the importance of chaperoning, but it’s sort of hard to summarize… or rather, it’s too easy to summarize. Mrs. Jacobs wants chaperones, because chaperones are important. So important that we will say the word until it does not sound like a word anymore. Chaperone. Chaperone. Chaperone. Make sure your wild teen party has one. They specifically create a space where Robyn’s Mom could be more specific about her concerns, and they are intentionally vague. I took a dig at the old fashioned implications of the word choice, but I do think there’s something deeper behind it. Robyn, Shannon and Michelle seem to be around fifteen. I’ve known fifteen year olds who didn’t need a babysitter and fifteen year olds who definitely did. But Robyn has pretty good judgment most of the time. This isn’t about fear that Robyn might burn the house down, or even that she might not have the sense to get out of the house if someone else sets it on fire. It’s about the possibility that this will be the kind of party where fifteen year olds have consensual sex with other fifteen year olds.

But of course, they can’t discuss that openly. That would mean mentioning the existence of sex. So they just say chaperone an absurd amount of times. Chaperone. Chaperone. Chaperone. Chaperone.

Anyway, Shannon and Michelle let Robyn hang out with them for the better part of a week. Mostly this is awesome, but once Robyn turns down a movie date because she goes to church every Wednesday night. Wednesday night services are a common part of AIO core cast life. They mostly come up to either A. induce mockery from non-Christian side characters, so as to remind us all of how persecuted Christians are, or B. allow a major Christian character to skip those services, therefore indicating that they are heading down a Slippery Slope (TM), without making them do something so shocking as skipping church on Sunday. Anyway, this is the former case, although Robyn notes that they find it weird more than actively mock it.

My perspective on this when I was a kid; “Wow, what complex characters! Even though they are evil cool kids, they aren’t actually picking on Robyn, and are giving her a chance to keep hanging out with the group. They aren’t rejecting her out of hand like so many non-Christians would. How interesting!”

My perspective on this now; “Wow, these characters behaved like actual non-Christians do, for like an entire three seconds.”

But then that realism is smashed when Michelle takes Robyn aside for a talk later. She delivers a sinister speech about how she used to go to church twice a week, but when she joined the cheerleading squad, she stopped. Not because she disliked it, but because Shannon has some weird, creepy influence on you, where without her directly teasing, you just stop wanting to do Jesus stuff. The final message is that Robyn needs to think about her cheerleading priorities, and how she will come across at the party.

I hate that. I hate that so much. Like, I think they were aiming for Regina George in Shannon’s characterization, but somehow they landed on the hypnotoad.

Hypnotoad
“Don’t go to church. Stay home. Watch Futurama.”

The day of the party they all talk about their plans, and Shannon brings up fitting in again. Once she has convinced Robyn to dress up, so as to really impress everybody, she casually mentions how she has enough time to fix any damage before their parents come back from out of town.

Wha-a-a-a? Her parents are out of town? Who could have possibly seen that coming?

Robyn refuses to defy her parents and go without a parental chaperone. Shannon promptly drops the invitation, and announces that Robyn absolutely cannot be a cheerleader because she isn’t cool enough.

And that’s why Robyn is so upset. Connie commiserates, and tells her how in the drama club, she was forced to play “raunchy” characters. Only those characters, nothing else. Connie played along for a while, despite feeling like it was wrong, and then one day she quit. This lost her all of her cool friends, and everything was sad, but then she had some personal revelation about the value of being herself. This bit also makes me very mad. I’m fine with Connie not wanting to play “raunchy” characters, whatever that means. Any drama club that pressures you into only playing characters you are deeply uncomfortable with is a shit club. What makes me angry is that, growing up, I thought this was realistic. It’s not. Most non-Christians don’t go out of their way to make Christians uncomfortable. I actually joined several acting clubs and classes. None of them pressured any students into taking roles they felt wrong about. One even let me tweak some dialog that I thought was mildly blasphemous. The “evil corrupting non-Christians” portrayal honestly fed into my anxiety, for no reason at all.

As I said earlier, most of these meta-moralizing episodes don’t have bad morals. I think it’s fine, for example, for Moms to decide they want their fifteen year old daughters to not be partying with college boys, for fifteen year old daughters to decide a trusting relationship with their mother is more important than the popular crowd, or for anybody to decide they aren’t comfortable stepping into a particular role, theatrical or social. I genuinely applaud Connie and Robyn for taking a path that felt harder, but was more true to their values. This episode is well titled; that took courage.

What I don’t like is the simplicity of the moral battle. This is all or nothing. It also feels like Shannon’s specific endgame was to separate Robyn from her beliefs, just as it seems implied that the drama club had a vested interest in making Connie feel immodest. It ties into a narrative, common to Evangelical circles, that the secular world is devoted to tearing them down… mostly people are actually pretty chill, so long as you aren’t constantly talking down to them.

This ties into the second part of Connie’s speech. She talks about how everything can seem important in the moment, but moments pass. Decisions have larger implications than just how they make us feel right now. Again, I’m all on board with that, as far as it goes, but then she starts talking about heaven and hell. She literally says that, for Christians, the present moment has implications for all of eternity. In other words, Robyn’s decision to quit the cheerleading squad is the kind of thing that can ultimately affect who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.

That’s a ridiculously heavy perspective to take. And in some ways, I think there is something a little beautiful in it; the idea of small actions having rippling consequences for good. That’s how I took it as a kid, and I think that’s a lot of why I liked this episode so much. I used it to tell myself that by not watching a movie or using a swearword or wearing low cut clothing, I was making a difference in who was going to heaven and who was going to hell. Not just for myself, but potentially witnessing to someone who was hellbound, or weakening the influence of Satan on earth. I’m not exaggerating when I say most of my childhood was spent in a mentality where swearing to not ever drink or party meant I was Frodo dragging the ring to Mordor, or the Pevensies battling the White Witch. I’d add in Harry Potter standing up to Voldemort, but you know, not reading Harry Potter was one of things I did, as a good Christian.

I don’t know how to adequately convey how exhausting that pressure becomes. The fear that an immodest dress and a dance to a raunchy song might make you the Edmund Pevensie or the Boromir of eternity’s story. The idea that an impure thought might make you a weak link in the epic of the cosmos.

The creation of that pressure is not an unintentional side effect of some poorly chosen words. It is the intentional aim of this story.

The story ends when next week Michelle says she was inspired by Robyn, and decided not to go to the party either. As it turned out, Shannon’s brother from college showed up and things got “out of hand.” Neighbors called the police about the noise and everybody who went got in trouble. Michelle says she wants to hang out more with Robyn, and Robyn invites her to church. This is the confirmation of Connie’s message; Robyn’s choices created ripples that might now mean Michelle won’t go to hell.

Final Ratings

Best Part: The one real attempt at a joke in this episode is when Mrs. Jacobs is distracted from the party conversation by an absurd amount of scratches on her coffee table. She asks whether people have been using sandpaper as coasters or tap dancing on it with cleats. It’s…. kind of funny? Like I said, really bland episode.

Worst Part: This episode has so little content, it actually ends with clips from three other episodes where characters stood up for their beliefs. Yeah, it ends with a fucking clip show. They aren’t even short clips. It’s about an eighteen minute episode with three minutes of clip. For people so convinced they are making a difference in eternity, they are real goddamn lazy.

Story Rating: Unless you completely buy into Shannon as an agent of the devil and Robyn’s decision as steps on the road to hell, it is completely  boring and predictable. C-

Moral Rating: The idea of being true to your values instead of blindly following others is great, but again, the whole context means this idea is under-explored. It is focused on pushing a simplified look at non-Christians, as well as enforcing its own kind of conformity, rather than really helping kids make authentic decisions. D-

Am I Still an Atheist?

I’ve been going through some reflections on my religious beliefs/lack thereof, and for a while now I’ve been wanting to update you all. This past week I’ve been battling a nasty chest bug. Then my cassette player wasn’t working, so I got an even later start on writing the episode. I was really dissatisfied with where it was, but I wanted to post something interesting and religion related, so hopefully this is an adequate substitute. My sincerest apologies for the change.

So, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had an issue with the religion I had been raised with. That problem was an excess of bullshit. And to be clear, I’m not talking about all Christianity. I’m talking about the specific subculture of conservative, evangelical Christianity, which is anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-feminist and anti-civil rights, except the really popular ones, which may be supported in a milquetoast-y way that doesn’t challenge the traditional supremacy of old white men. You know. The bullshit Christianity.

But I hadn’t yet lost faith in the existence of some kind of higher being or afterlife or greater plan for the world. I just had no conception of what that all might look like. So I did some research, on Islam and Buddhism and Baha’i and non-bullshit Christianity, and everything else. I discovered two things.

First, every religion in existence has at least one bullshit version and at least one non-bullshit version. That is to say, there is at least one version where people believe in things that science has conclusively disproved, and also look down on at least one type of person who is, you know, not actually evil. And then there’s at least one version that doesn’t so much do that. I definitely knew that I wanted to follow a non-bullshit religion.

Second, none of the non-bullshit religions claimed to offer conclusive proof that their variation was correct. This was unsettling to me. I was used to claims of logical consistency, objective truth, and absolute confidence in being right. Sure, those claims turned out to be completely unfounded, but at least those claims meant I could eventually be certain of something. I was eventually certain that they were wrong. There’s something to be said for that.

I took to praying that God, the real God, wherever he/she/it was and whatever name he/she/it went by, would divinely offer me some kind of proof. Or, failing that, at least strong personal conviction.

No guidance came, so eventually I became an atheist.

If you’re reading this hoping for a decry of how foolish that was, I’m sorry to say you’ll be at least partially disappointed. I think it was exactly where I needed to be. After twenty years steeping in highly toxic religion, I needed a detox. I needed to see what life was like without passionate, fundamentalist belief, and I needed to know it would be okay.

And, you know, I was fine. I met some atheists who were real self-righteous dicks, and I met some who weren’t. Turns out atheism too has a bullshit and non-bullshit version. The non-bullshit version is people going, “I don’t believe in any God, and I’m fine with that. I find meaning enough without religion.” The bullshit one adds, “and that makes me an inherently better person than any non-atheists.” The bullshit atheists don’t come with any specific sub-denomination, so you have to just get to know people and see which one they are.

So all that was fine. I got some remedial science education in, started a cool blog series, and figured out how to be cool with the idea that my consciousness would probably end along with my body. Good stuff.

But over the last year or so, I’ve started to feel a little tug inside towards something more spiritual.

“Huh,” I went. “That’s weird and does not fit with my current conception of the world. It is probably nothing, and will go away on it’s own.”

It didn’t.

So, back into the thinking and the researching I dove. One of the things I realized was that the thing we call “religion” has multiple functions. One is to explain the world around us. One is to provide moral guidelines. One is to provide supportive communities for personal growth. There may be others, but those are the big ones. Or the ones I am most interested in.

The trouble with the explanation aspect is that eventually science starts catching up and measuring things that were once based on faith. This upsets religion, quite a lot. Religion does not like being told that it’s random guess was wrong, and has been wrong for generations. Unfortunately, in these arguments, science usually has the receipts. Personally, I think religion should officially retire from this function, and delegate it to science.

Now, unlike many skeptical materialists, I don’t pretend science is perfect at this function. Science is a slow and complicated process. For example, we haven’t properly disproven an afterlife, or a soul. It’s just that neither of those are things that fit well into everything else we know about death and the human brain. But also there’s a lot we generally don’t know about those things, so, the honest scientific answer to “is there such a thing as an afterlife?” is “I dunno. It’s really hard to research that.”

Now, people don’t like “I don’t know yet” as an answer, especially to questions with such existentially profound implications. So people seize on either the few tests that confirm their pre-existing biases, or just dress up those biases with words that sound very sciencey. People on both sides of these kinds of questions do that. But I think, even with this caveat, science is better than religion at figuring out facts. We just need to get better at accepting incomplete answers.

I could write a whole post on that. On to the next function.

Religion, I think, does help communities form moral philosophies. It’s very hard to make moral arguments from purely scientific standpoints, because science doesn’t make value judgments. Value is something that comes from a human perspective. Religion is good at giving that subjective perspective equally subjective language, and then we can use that language to compare notes, and create an effective intersubjective framework.

But that said, the truly universal morals don’t need religion to get there. People arrive independently at them using very different contexts, and people of no religion are just as likely to be good people as those who are deeply religious. But I do think religion can be a useful tool, both for individuals and societies. It just becomes a problem when religious people create echo chambers, instead of working to broaden the reach of their religious framework, and create a generous, diverse moral community.

Again, I could write for ages on this. Let’s wrap up the final function; communities.

Religious communities can be great. You can also be a happy, complete and sociable person whose communities happen to all be non-religious. So long as you’re surrounding yourself with good, supportive people who work to make the world a better place, you do whatever works for you. I don’t think anybody should feel forced to join a religious community.

But that said, I want to join a religious community. I dunno, I guess it’s just that things that religious communities are into happen to really appeal to me? And frankly, even at the height of my atheism, I never felt good around atheist communities. I never clicked with them. Not even the communities that were pretty solidly non-bullshit. This isn’t a judgment, it’s just that I never got that, “yes, these are my people! I have no trouble being myself here!”

You know who is giving me that feeling right now? Wiccans and neopagans. I went to an event and did a lot of lurky reading, and it felt really awesome.

That doesn’t mean I’m an official warlock now. I’m exploring. After a bit more, I might find I’m out of place after all, and some other religious community suits me. Or that I am just destined to spend my life a nomad of various faith communities. I am cool with all of these options.

(and, not to get too deep into it, yes, wiccans and neopagans also come in bullshit and non-bullshit varieties. It’s almost like they are humans or something)

As I am still very much an ex-Christian, and specifically an ex-evangelical, I do still want to do my reviews of Adventures in Odyssey, as well as some more works of C. S. Lewis and a smattering of other bits of Christian pop culture. I have been thinking of a good title to replace “Reviews as an Atheist,” and I have settled on “Reviews as a Godless Heathen.” I like that phrase for myself. It sounds funny and self-depricating, but it’s also a pretty accurate description of where I am. I’m not a Christian and God isn’t really a part of my religious makeup, but other than that, I could be anything. I don’t really know, and I fully expect it will change over the years.

I’ll be updating the titles and tags accordingly, and I’ll post the next AIO review two weeks from now. Thanks as always for coming along on the journey, and take good care of yourself! You are awesome.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Do, For a Change

This episode comes shortly after A Touch of Healing but before Letting Go. For those who haven’t read those reviews, Zachary is a kid who became paralyzed and lost his father in a car accident. When introduced, he is angry and defensive but over the series he learns to deal with his pain and let his guard down. At the end of A Touch of Healing, Jack Allen (friend of Whit who briefly fills in for him) converts both Zachary and his mother Eileen to Christianity. This is their first episode after that conversion.

It opens with Zachary and Eileen arguing. We don’t get the cause of it, only the tail end, when things have already spiraled beyond whatever began the fight, when they are just reflexively flinging familiar rebuttals at each other. It ends with exhaustion, rather than resolution, and Eileen says, “I don’t get it Zach, we are Christians now, both of us. Things are supposed to be different.”

The idea that Christians are supposed to be inherently better has underwritten a lot of my issues with the other episodes in this theme, and this show as a whole. When they focused only on the (valid) negatives of secular pop psychology, but did not apply the same scrutiny to Whit’s brand of lesson teaching, well, acknowledging this “Christians are better people” bias explains a lot of that discrepancy.

For what it’s worth, though, I grew up reading cringeworthy books where literally every Christian had only minor flaws, every non-Christian was horrible, and religious conversion created an instant transformation from shitty to nigh perfect. AIO does not do that. While secular and non-Christian characters tend to fall lower on the hierarchy of Rightness, they can still have endearing or sympathetic character traits, and Christian characters still have significant flaws that they need to work on. Their stance is not that Christians are perfect, but that conversion to Christianity is essential to beginning the process of self-improvement.

And, for the record, I think that many people use their faith as a framework to help themselves grow, and that’s fine. I don’t take issue with self-improvement in a religious context. It’s just that, if you really think Christianity is the only means to grow and mature, I can only assume you have not met many non-Christians. It’s a bias that does not survive more than a cursory encounter with large numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, atheists, agnostics, wiccans, Jains, neopagans, people from a denomination you were told wasn’t “real Christianity,” Baha’i….

Anyway, in the next scene, Zachary is in a fight with his friend Erica. He’s mansplaining the toy train to her, and in the ensuing fight, it kinda breaks. Erica storms away, and Jack comes to find out what caused all the commotion. Zachary confides that he has been fighting with everyone lately. He says the whole point of being a Christian is that you become a better person. So why is he still picking fights with people, losing his temper, and being a general brat?

Jack says that self improvement takes time. He advises Zachary to pray and meditate on Scripture, and also invites him to join a Bible Study specifically geared towards new Christians. At that very moment, Connie is also recruiting for the Bible study. Eugene has recently converted, and his experience is very different from Zachary’s. Connie has given him a book to read that was extremely formative to her faith, but Eugene actually found it somewhat boring and elementary. As a curious, academically inclined person who has worked at Whit’s End for years, he is already well versed in the various doctrinal issues. He attempts to say this tactfully, but being Eugene, he doesn’t quite avoid coming off arrogant.

Connie feels mildly miffed, but she understands that Eugene isn’t trying to be hurtful and condescending. She invites him to Jack’s Bible Study, and he gladly accepts.

At the school library, before the first Bible Study meeting, Zachary tries to check out a book, but Erica is volunteering at checkout. She deliberately makes the checkout drag on, clearly messing with him in revenge for the other day. Zachary blows his temper, but does apologize, and Erica is frankly a bitch. She even picks on him for getting a book on being a new Christian, digging at him for how many times he will probably need to renew it.

Damn, Erica, way to not practice what you preach.

The study is just Zachary, Eileen and Eugene, plus Connie and Jack, which is kind of weird. The writers could easily have inserted minor one-off characters to round it out. It makes it feel like Jack didn’t actually have a full Bible Study lined up, and just threw one together when he realized Zachary and Eileen needed some extra support. Actually, that’s exactly the kind of thing Jack would do… headcanon accepted. Anyway, Zachary tells the group about the library incident, as an example of how he keeps losing his temper. Everyone is encouraging, pointing out that he apologized, which is not something he would have done before. He is also aware of his flaws, which Jack says is the first step to getting better. Zachary can’t grow without being aware of what he needs to work on.

Now it’s Eugene’s turn. Having spent so much time around Christians and Christianity, Eugene knows exactly what Bible Study is really for; humblebrags! He lists his rigorous schedule for daily meditation and Bible reading, and rejoices that he has had no trouble sticking to these rituals of daily spiritual stimulation. Again, he doesn’t mean to come across as an asshole, rubbing Zach’s face in the difference in their religious experiences. It’s just that when you’re as great as Eugene, you can’t help but come across as showing off.

Jack and Connie don’t really have a response to this, so they suggest breaking for snack. Eugene won’t be partaking, as he is fasting to better understand the plight of the underprivileged. But he is happy to say grace for everyone else.

His idea of a blessing… let’s just say it contains the word “eschatological,” a word which never belongs in a pre-meal prayer. First of all, it means “related to the theology of the end times,” and if that appropriate to a meal than somebody has definitely overused the hot sauce. Second, most people don’t know what that word means, and so they will spend the entire meal trying not to wonder why he felt the need to bring up the study of poo.

Zach’s next test of patience comes on a school field trip, where he ends up paired with Glenn. I don’t think I’ve talked about Glenn before. Glenn has two passions in life; learning about every horrific natural disaster, conspiracy theory and apocalyptic scenario possible, and using that knowledge to inform everyone in sight of the various gory ways in which they might die. He is less concerned with whether or not anybody around him wants to hear about their imminent mortality.

Like all tragic heroes, he sees all dangers but the one right in front of him, the one most likely to get him in the end; the fact that he’s so fucking annoying that sooner or later somebody’s gonna chuck him out a window.

Speaking of which, after an hour or so of hearing about giant slugs, secretly blind bus drivers, and hidden fault lines, Zach shoves Glenn into a model volcano. Listen, I know this episode is supposed to be about Zach’s lack of patience, but I for one feel this is a well-deserved outcome.

Zachary decides that, after this turn of events, he can’t be a Christian, and he heads to Whit’s End to return the Bible Jack gave him.

Before Zachary arrives, Jack walks in on Eugene explaining the difference between wisdom and knowledge to a kid at Whit’s End. When the kid leaves, Eugene laughs at a “trite little exercise” she was doing, where she looks through verses on knowledge and wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Jack reveals that he is the origin of that trite little exercise. He didn’t just want to give the kid answers, but teach her how to find the answers for herself. God, I just, I have to talk about Jack for a bit, because he is so great. He has so much faith in people’s abilities to grow and improve, and everything he does is geared towards empowering that. He is simply wonderful. I wish he could have replaced Whit forever.

Before Jack make another point, Zachary shows up with the Bible. He tells Jack he gives up. Jack’s response is, “What’s the use of taking a bath? I’m just going to get dirty again.” Everybody sins, he says. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody stumbles. And if everybody gave up on faith after a stumble, there would be no Christians left. He admits that he messes up. Zachary doesn’t believe him, but Jack tells him stories about all the trouble he got into, and how long it took to improve.

This revelation that Jack, his ultimate mentor, used to be as bad as he was, has a powerful effect on Zachary. He takes back his Bible and promises to keep trying.

Eugene starts reflecting on how hard it is to relate to Zachary’s struggle, and Jack decides it’s about time to give him a talk about humility. Eugene literally cannot name a single thing that he thinks he needs to work on. And that’s the problem. He is so absorbed in how well he is doing, he can’t recognize that he’s driving everyone bonkers. Jack, ever the diplomat, gently points out that Eugene’s next project is to develop the humility to let go of the academia and exercises, and really grow as a person.

At the next Bible study, instead of talking about his screw ups, Zachary talks about the things he has been doing to consciously practice patience. He gets into long lines instead of short ones. He asked Glenn to help him on a school project. He even ate an entire plate of peas with a knife.

Eugene planned to deliver a multi-page lecture on some obscure theological issue, featuring heavy references to the philosophy of medieval scholars. But, given what he and Jack talked about, he decides to instead share about his reflections on humility.

With a multi-page lecture. Complete with references to medieval theological philosophy.

Connie comments to Zachary that he is going to have a new test of patience. Zachary says he doesn’t think he’s ready.

Yeah, I fuckin’ loved this episode.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Jack’s speech to Zachary about committing to personal growth and getting second chances. It was the kind of thing everyone needs to hear in their life.

Worst Part: I still think the Bible study should have had a few more characters. That’s my only criticism, and I fully admit that it’s a nitpick.

Story Rating: Good, character driven, funny parts that were actually funny. A

Moral Rating: I wish they hadn’t conflated being Christian with being a decent person, but I liked everything else. B+

Final Ratings For The X Topic

Best Episode: Do, For a Change

Worst Episode: The Pushover

Good Things They Said: Growth takes long term effort and real work. Pop psychology needs to be taken with some real skeptical thought. It’s good to remember to reward good behavior, but more important to learn that actual morality does not require the promise of imminent reward.

Bad Things They Said: Growth is something only Christians get to do. Good advice from secular sources is Not a Thing. Manipulative lessons from authority figures are fine, so long as the authority figure is Whit.

Things They Failed to Address: That Whit seriously needs to learn the difference between “please introduce my kid to some nicer kids his age” and “please send my kid into the woods with a self-absorbed bully. Preferably when it’s close to dark and without any adult supervision.”

Overall Rating: Obviously their religious bigotry is a problem, and I don’t think I’m being unfair in using that word. In their eyes, any non-Christian faith is inherently inferior. In reviewing these episodes, I kept feeling like they had a lot of good ideas, but their focus kept being skewed by that bigotry. They kept having to remind the audience and themselves that all the good advice they have only counts if it is coming from a Christian perspective, and they tripped over themselves a bit.

Despite that, I’m still inclined to give this a rating on the positive side. When I’m torn, the deciding factor is often how I personally was impacted. I think that, regardless of their assumptions about where morality comes from, the message that I should keep seeking to be a better person, and not give up when it was hard, had a great influence on me. This feels like a B to me.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The Pushover

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.

J Walter Weatherman

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.

(EXPAND BELOW)

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.

Final Ratings

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-

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+

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as An Atheist: A is for Attitude

Before I start on the real show, I feel the need to actually describe Chris’s intro. Normally I skip them because, in the words of Tom Haverford of Parks and Rec

TED beige
“This is like listening to a TED talk by the color beige.”

But this time, she commits a crime which must not stand unremarked upon. She’s at a blood bank, and runs into someone with the type B+. And if you’ve noticed the title of the episode, you know there’s some prime Dad joke fodder there. So what does she do?

She laughs, then apologizes, and says, she’s sorry, it’s just that the episode is about being positive and there’s just a loose connection between being positive and “B+.”

She, a fictional character, who could have been written to say anything, laughs at the joke inside her own head, and then explains the joke without delivering it.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHH!

I’m sorry, but I could not let the murder of that perfectly respectable pun go unwitnessed.

Also, I don’t think I’ve commented on this before, but in a lot of the episodes where she has a mini-story, rather than just a bad TED talk, she also directly tells the other characters that they are about to hear an episode. At other times, she acts as if she’s eavesdropping on live events. This creates a weird intra-narrative paradox. Is AIO a show within a show, and all this time we’ve been witnessing the descent into madness of a fallen voice actress who comes to believe her only remaining gig is real? Or is she a Deadpool-like figure who is aware that she is in a work of fiction? If so, do the characters she talks to also know that they are in a work of fiction, or do they think she’s completely lost it? And what about the mini stories that take place inside the sound booth, while she’s canonically recording the intro for this radio show? What is the canon here?!?!

I’ve spent far too much time on this.

This episode properly begins with Connie struggling to concentrate on her homework. She’s studying for a geography test, and it’s one of her least favorite subjects. She decides to turn the TV on for some background noise. On an Oprah-type show, the host interviews a self help guru. He talks about how, say, sometimes students study hard but still failing because of stress and negative thinking. He says that, with a better attitude, you can do better even with less studying. Connie promptly decides to abandon studying for the adoption of a positive attitude.

We only hear a brief clip, so it’s hard to tell whether Connie’s decision is an accurate reflection of his overall message. He doesn’t actually say that positivity makes hard work unnecessary. He also doesn’t clarify that attitude alone can’t save the day. There are some people who make their living overselling things like willpower and mindfulness and positive thinking. At the same time, there is real use in those things, when balanced with practical action. It’s not entirely clear, at this point, whether they are directing their main criticisms at Connie, or the self-help guru.

Connie takes her test and turns it in with confidence. In her mind, she has already aced it. Then she waltzes up to her friend Cheryl. Cheryl loves singing, and Connie thinks she should try out for the glee club. Cheryl isn’t sure. She hasn’t had any formal training, nor has she even really sung in front of other people. She likes singing to herself in the shower, basically. But Connie gives her a pep talk and some catchy mottos, and Cheryl gets caught up in the enthusiasm. She signs up for auditions

Next Connie runs into Jimmy Barclay, who is practicing with his rather sucky basketball team. They are getting down on themselves, and she decides to deliver her new philosophy once again. She tells them their practicing isn’t working, so they should focus less on drills, more on getting pumped. At first they are skeptical, but when she makes a basket, seemingly with nothing but the power of positive thinking, they get into the idea.

One kid, Peter, goes to her afterwards and reveals that he has a fear of heights. All his friends who walk to school take a shortcut across a train trestle in McAllister Park, and he has to wake up an hour earlier because he can’t do it. Also, he gets teased.

Connie suddenly realizes that she is going all in on an untried philosophy, and frankly this kid sounds like he has a serious phobia that should be worked through with a qualified therapist. Naw, just kidding. She tells him that happy thoughts are magic.

That Saturday, Connie tells Whit all about her winning new philosophy. Which has not actually won anything yet. Whit calls it one of the most ridiculous things he’s ever heard. She drags him along to her friend’s audition, to prove him wrong.

Cheryl bombs it. Turns out she’s actually very tone deaf, and never knew it because, you know, this is literally the first time she’s sung in front of a living human. Whit isn’t happy that Cheryl was embarrassed, but he hopes he’s at least talked Connie out of this silly idea. Connie argues instead that Cheryl wasn’t really positive enough. It isn’t that the theory doesn’t work, but that Cheryl let herself get nervous before the audition. So she hauls Whit to Jimmy’s basketball game.

These kids definitely do not have an attitude problem. They’re chanting and cheering each other on loudly. The coach even compliments them on their spirit. He announces that next time around they are going to work on the skill part of the picture, because they have just lost 56 to 12.

Now it hits Connie that she might be wrong. There’s a little bit of obligatory “don’t trust this motivational speaker’s book, trust the Bible.” Yeah Whit, the Bible definitely has a whole bit on how, in the late twentieth century, Western civilization will be swept with a fever for trashy self-help books. It’s right there in Jeremonicus 4:20, “yea, you shall read these books, and you shall take from them that you deserve to love thyself and work on thy goals, but thou shalt take their advice with a grain of salt, for verily they maketh extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence.”

Anyway, then Connie notices that Peter isn’t at the game. His team says he had something to do at McAllister Park, and Connie remembers the train trestle. This is a radio show, but I swear you can see her eyes bug out with the realization. Whit and Connie rush over there.

Peter did pretty well, to be honest. He got halfway over before the power of positive thinking wore out. Technically Connie’s best success yet.

Less good news; he is now absolutely frozen in the middle of the tracks. You know, the train tracks. That actual trains run on. And since they make train schedules based on dramatic impact, one is coming right now.

Whit goes out and gets him to jump. Both of them are okay, and Connie is totally over positive thinking.

Although, to rub it in, she gets a D in geography.

This is the first of my theme on personal development. In retrospect I could have combined some of this with the mental health theme, but while that was about dealing with emotional problems, this is more about the ongoing process of growing, regardless of whether or not you are starting from a healthy place. AIO is a show that is obviously very into learning to be better, but they also have a kneejerk distrust of self improvement that isn’t directly tied to religion. That said, the distrust isn’t always unwarranted. There genuinely is some bullcrap out there, and apart from my slight nitpicks, I like what this episode is trying to say.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I give Whit a lot of crap, because I think he is put on a very undeserved pedestal by the writers and characters. But I’ll hand it to him; his jump at the end is pretty badass.

Worst Part: The death of that poor, poor pun.

Story Rating: Moves along at a nice steady pace, a little formulaic but not in a bad way. It knows what it is supposed to be, and it is exactly that. B

Moral Rating: I wish the delivery of the moral was more “look the reasoning and evidence” and less “look at what the Bible says,” but the story illustrated the point pretty neatly. And frankly after all the crummy morals from the last theme, I feel like acknowledging the good in this series. In other words, I’m gonna B+

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Blind Justice

And now, my second installment of Meta-Moralizing, the part where I don’t analyze the message, but rather how themes are constructed in Adventures in Odyssey.

This episode is based off Twelve Angry Men, which I will be spoiling heavily. Even though it’s well past the statute of limitations, it is also one of my favorite movies, I think everyone in the world deserves to watch it at least once without knowing what’s coming, so there, consider yourself warned. Eugene and Bernard have been given jury duty, on the same case. I don’t think I’ve reviewed an episode with Bernard yet, but he’s kind of a poor man’s Tom Reilly. Folksy, convenial, generally prone to giving out life advice that mostly isn’t crappy. The biggest difference is that he works as a custodian and general handyman, rather than farmer/politician, and he is a lot snarkier. He also has a fun love/hate dynamic with Eugene, who is his distant cousin.

The case concerns a high school senior who is accused of a house robbery. He actually confesses to breaking and entering, but says it was just part of an initiation into a gang, and he didn’t take anything of value. According to him, the gang went in afterwards, unbeknownst to him, and torched the safe. When the kid left the gang, they planted a bracelet in his locker to frame him. Part of the point of gangs is that they are hard to leave, after all.

He does have an alibi for after the break-in, but it’s fairly loose. According to the prosecution’s expert witness, the safe would only take about fifteen minutes to torch through, so the timeline still works in the prosecution’s favor. The kid’s case looks even worse because, during the investigation, he kept adjusting his story. When he thought he could convince the cops he had nothing to do with the robbery, he denied everything. When they had a more solid case, he essentially confessed to what they could prove, but came up with a story to get off the hook for the rest. An entirely unverifiable story. Most of the jury thinks this is an open and shut case.

Although everyone is interested taking a quick vote and dashing out, Eugene insists on following procedure. Bernard is elected foreman and they issue their votes by secret ballot. The secret part turns out to be pointless, however. Everyone votes guilty, except for Eugene, who gives himself away by writing a nigh incomprehensible mini-essay on reasonable doubt instead of “not guilty.” He insists on going over all the evidence again, to everyone’s dismay.

In both Blind Justice and Twelve Angry Men, the other jurors are impatient, but also genuinely convinced of the defendant’s guilt. The difference is the reason for the single dissenting vote. In the film, Juror 8 is disturbed by the implications of casting the twelfth guilty vote. The defendant is a boy accused of murdering his father, and in the setting, a guilty conviction guarantees a death sentence. The kid is barely old enough to be tried as an adult. Juror 8 doesn’t feel right giving someone that young a death sentence. That unease turns into reasonable doubt when he coincidentally finds a knife identical to the one used in the murder. The prosecution’s case rested in part on the knife’s design being rare, possibly even rare, but if Juror 8 could find a copy without even looking for it, what does that say about the prosecution? Worse, what does it say about the defense? Have they been neglecting other obvious holes in the prosecution’s case? Is a teenage boy about to be killed because his public defender is tired, apathetic or lazy?

Eugene, on the other hand, votes not guilty because… he’s not convinced? He honestly never gives a coherent reason. He buys the kid’s story as a plausible alternative because otherwise the episode would be over too quickly.

When I was young, I knew the moment Eugene began to protest that the kid was innocent. On my first re-listen as an adult, I at first thought this was because I was precociously genre savvy, but then I began to reconsider. Younger me didn’t know what this story was based on. Furthermore, you could write an equally interesting story where Eugene is in the wrong. He often tries to prove he’s more intelligent than everybody else, and has to learn a lesson about his own arrogance. How did I, as a little kid, know that wasn’t where the story was going?

Because, in this episode, Eugene was clearly the highest ranked character.

Adventures in Odyssey has a very simple moral hierarchy. It goes like this;

  1. Whit
  2. Tom Reilly, Jack Allen, or any Christian parental figure
  3. Jason Whitaker
  4. Eugene
  5. Connie
  6. Childless Christian adults with recurring roles
  7. Christian kids with recurring roles
  8. Non-recurring characters of unspecified religion
  9. Non-Christian parents and adults
  10. Non-Christian or non-recurring kids

Non-Christian, non-recurring kids are never right, and Whit is never wrong. Everyone else is always right if they are the highest ranked character in the episode, or agreeing with the highest ranked character, but they are always wrong if they disagree with the highest ranked character. And I’m not hyperbolizing about the frequency. I racked my brain to come up with exceptions, and if any of you can think of one, please leave a comment. I can’t think of any episodes that break this rule.

So, now that both stories have hit the “somebody votes not guilty to the other juror’s dismay” point, we move into “intensive re-examination of the available evidence” which will take the majority of the remaining time. Twelve Angry Men gets fairly complicated at this point. As they examine each piece of evidence together, there is always a point where an alternative explanation is possible. The boy has an alibi that he was at a movie theater. According to police records, the boy could not name the films or newsreels when at the stations, although he could on the stand. Was he coached by the defense? Or too confused and stressed at the station to think clearly? These are the kinds of questions the jurors ask. At no point are we convinced of his innocence, merely made to doubt his guilt. The movie frequently discusses the difference between the two, which is a distinction that too many people don’t think about. We like binaries. “Guilty” or “innocent.” The third category, “not proven guilty or innocent,” is troubling. Yet, in a sense, reality can never offer absolute proof, only probabilities. How probable does a case have to be before you take a side? To fail to ask this question is to fail to understand the very concept of justice.

As the evidence develops, so do the characters of the other eleven jurors. One is highly prejudiced against immigrants and the poor. One seems to be voting with his mood. He is more concerned with his bladder, his stomach and an upcoming baseball game than the case. He grumbles about the heat and votes guilty. Then air conditioner turns on and suddenly he votes not guilty. Another juror changes his mind every time a new argument is made. Still another, who prides himself on having a logical and cool mind, also projects that logic onto the actions and decisions of everyone else in the case. Which is ironic, because what is less empirical than the belief that humans behave logically?

All this makes us think about the fallibility of the human mind. Justice as a perfect ideal must always be filtered through the imperfect human mind. How can we ever claim to know, with certainty, what is true? What is fair? How can we take a stranger’s life into our hands… yet when justice for a person’s death is at stake, how can we not?

One by one, the jurors change their votes, for good reasons and bad. We don’t know if any of this is moving us closer to the truth, but it feels more just.

In place of all this subtlety, Eugene stares at the evidence until another juror, who owns a hardware store, realizes that the prosecution’s expert misidentified the safe. It’s actually a sturdier model that would take a couple hours to torch through. Now the kid’s alibi is actually, you know, an alibi. If the safe took fifteen minutes to open, there’s no reason to believe his story. If it took two to three hours, there’s no reason not to. In place of ambiguity, we have a light switch issue.

Everyone on the jury agrees to change their vote to “not guilty,” on account of how the kid is obviously not guilty. There’s one holdout, however, who rants about how obviously bad and guilty this kid is. In the middle of his rant, he accidentally reveals that he used to know this kid, and hated his guts. In order to get on the jury, he lied about it.

Bernard reveals this to the bailiff, the case is ruled a mistrial and everybody goes home. The defense is given the hardware guy’s notes, and they will use it in the upcoming retrial, which gives the kid a good chance. Bernard and Eugene go get pot roast, and that’s the end of the story.

Twelve Angry Men also has a final holdout with a personal grudge, but once again, the situation is more complicated. Juror 3 has a bad relationship with his son, and he’s been projecting that onto this case. We get the sense that he’s spent his entire life believing that his son was just an irredeemably bad seed, because the alternative would be to believe he did something wrong as a parent. He is afraid of this idea, and will resist it at all costs. Even the cost of another kid’s life.

When Juror 3 finally realizes what he is doing and votes not guilty, it’s a beautiful, cathartic scene. It also does not convince us that the defendant is innocent. It only makes us see the importance of judging the value of his life as someone who is still, in many ways, a vulnerable kid. We don’t know what will happen to him. We don’t know if Juror 3 will reconnect with his son. We only know that human nature is not simple and the human intellect is not infallible. After a tragedy, we cannot always know what happened or what we should do about it. We can only approach our decisions with as much thoughtfulness as we can muster, balancing fairness against mercy.

Now, at this point, you might want to criticize me for saying more about Twelve Angry Men than Blind Justice. Well… yeah. That’s completely accurate. But I dare anybody to watch these two back to back and have more to say about Blind Justice. It’s not that Blind Justice is bad, or wrong. It’s just unmemorable. I mean that literally. I’ve actually listened to this episode more times than I’ve watched Twelve Angry Men, yet the scenes and jokes of Twelve Angry Men play in my mind like a newsreel, while the events of Blind Justice blur together. In fact the only scene from Blind Justice that immediately comes to mind is one where a female juror orders cashew chicken despite being allergic to cashews. It wasn’t a good scene or a bad one, just kind of head-scratching, enough to be remembered.

Before I asked myself how I knew Eugene was right, I wasn’t going to review this episode. I was going to toss it in with the others that were too boring to say anything interesting about. Then I realized the unwritten hierarchy of moral authority. Once I realized it, I knew I had to talk about it, because it is part of why I was such an uncritical viewer of this series.

I was an analytical kid. Once, when accused of being an overthinker, I started to seriously debate whether there was such a thing as thinking too much. I think I was eleven at the time. Yet, as I review these episodes, there is so much that is staggeringly under-thought. Not even wrong, just lazy, sloppy, and needlessly mediocre.

 

That’s the other reason why I have gone into so much detail, in comparing it to Twelve Angry Men. Unambiguous authority figures don’t make for clear moral thinking. They discourage moral self-examination. Twelve Angry Men encourages you to side with Juror 8, but it doesn’t dictate that stance. Juror 8 could be wrong. My partner actually is positive that the boy was the murderer; at one point the jurors re-enact the crime to check the timetable, and they forget to mime wiping fingerprints off the handle. After their re-enactment, they come to distrust a piece of eyewitness testimony, but my partner thinks the crucial seconds they left out were enough to invalidate their already sketchy experiment. We debate back and forth. But in that very debate, we are internalizing the point. True justice requires care and deliberation.

In contrast, I don’t think I internalized any lessons from Blind Justice. Because I trusted Eugene to be right, I thought no more on the issue.

If there is any theme to the Reviews as an Atheist/Agnostic/Godless Heathen series as a whole, it’s that evangelical Christians aren’t always wrong, but the modern movement has gotten bad at catching themselves when they are wrong. They take a hierarchical, authoritarian approach to their ideas, and trust their preferred leaders without taking a serious look at the evidence their leaders are basing their judgment on. In this world of climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and corrupt administrations, that tendency has taken on dangerous consequences.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: I don’t know, I can’t think of a scene except the cashew scene. Like, I know what happened, because I took notes, but I can’t remember the scenes and the dialog.

Worst Moment: Like, she said, “does anybody want my cashew chicken, I’m allergic,” and then somebody said, “then why did you order it?” and she said, “because the cashews give it a nice flavor,” and the guy sputtered “but, but you’re allergic to cashews, so why… nevermind.” Is that a good joke? A bad joke? A so bad it’s good joke? I literally cannot decide.

Story Rating: Meh. C-

Moral Rating: Again I say to thee, meh. C-