Tag Archives: christianity

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Viva la Difference

It’s probably not surprising, given that this is a product of Focus on the Family, that politics and social issues is not one of the topics I think they handled particularly well. I not only have come to disagree on them when it comes to most issues, but disagree in a way that creates an impasse. It’s one thing to disagree with someone, but be willing to be convinced, and have them return the sentiment. It’s another thing to have your core assumptions and values so diametrically opposed that neither of you could persuade the other without also fundamentally rocking your worldview. On most issues, AIO and I disagree in the latter sense, and in this way I think we unfortunately mirror our society as a whole.

Yet, I do like to start my topical sections out on a positive note, and there’s one particular episode that debunks a serious misconception about conservative Christianity. I’m going to temporarily put aside my politically outraged liberal hat, so I can talk about one political lesson that was incredibly positive. I don’t just bring this up because I want cookies for being fair minded, but also because I think that if you’re going to fight a toxic mentality, you need to fully understand it. I think that sometimes we waste our time fighting something that isn’t actually a problem, and that gets in the way of the bigger, more uncomfortable problems.

So without further ado, I would like to introduce you to the Mulligans. Mike and Tracy are the parents, Lisa is their daughter, and they also take care of their cousin Nick. Nick has a good heart, but is so preoccupied with being cool that he usually ends up being the biggest dork around. Lisa is blind, spunky and an ardent animal lover. To her delight, the family lives on a farm where they’ve rehomed various exotic animals from a closed zoo. They took in the animals because they have made an agreement to “always say yes to God.” In other words, when somebody comes to them needing help, they will find a way to do it.

Have I mentioned I really, really like the Mulligans?

On the Mulligan zoo-farm, they all have their own assigned critters. Nick and Lisa have very different techniques for wrangling them, and they are getting on each other’s nerves. For example, as they are unloading some new animals, Lisa’s sweet talk approach with her ostriches gets them into their pen at approximately the rate of sloth. Meanwhile, Nick’s baby elephant, Gus, isn’t eating. Nick’s main ideas have been, A. try to somehow pry Gus’s mouth open and shovel some food in or B. explain to him the error of his ways. These have not been particularly effective. Lisa thinks Gus is probably scared and would cooperate better after some TLC; Nick thinks that if she would stop serenading the birds and just shoo them they might possibly stop being in his way all the time.

Whit comes in the middle of this chaos with a request. There’s a single mother he knows who is going into the hospital for a long stay, and her daughters need a place to stay. Mike and Tracy say they want to pray about it, but it’s pretty clear where this is going. Even they joke about the farm turning into a city.

The next day, Lisa and Nick get into a fight over lunch. She makes a lot of the meals and has gone full blown vegetarian lately. Nick is not adapting well to the rabbit lifestyle. Tracy tries to settle this argument by convincing him to take a turn cooking. At first he insists he’s too macho for that, but she points out that some of the best chefs in the world are men.

For AIO, this is some mind blowing gender subversion.

Anyway, he’s convinced, and while he goes off, Lisa rants about his macho attitude towards everything. Tracy uses diversity in the animal kingdom to talk about how different gender expressions can both be good. Lisa has never had a brother, nor has Nick had a sister. When Nick does things a different way, and Lisa automatically assumes. But when it comes to animals, she doesn’t like one animal more for travelling in herds instead of living solo, or having feathers instead of fur. They’re all different, and she loves them all for what they are. Tracy encourages her to see her own femininity and Nick’s masculinity like fur and feathers; not better or worse, just different.

Once the speech is over, they go to check in on what Nick’s doing for lunch, or as Lisa says, what he’s doing to it. He presents them with, hot dog and sausage sandwiches, sprinkled with bacon, wrapped in bologna, topped with spam. That is mostly a direct quote, but I’ve left out Lisa’s agonized gagging.

I guess lunch meat withdrawal is a thing.

Lisa gets physically sick and Tracy goes to help her out, while Mike does his best to enjoy the… meal?

A bit later, as Nick is taking another shot at feeding Gus, Mike goes in to broach the topic of the girls Whit wanted them to look after. He starts by checking in with how Nick’s adjusting to having a sister. Nick talks about girls being weird, and Mike gives his own talk about how boring the world would be if men and women were exactly alike. He also takes it a little further, bringing up how all the other differences between us can make us  better; how being around people who aren’t exactly like us can enrich us as people, and challenge us to grow in ways that we never would if everybody was exactly the same. It’s a great speech, but unfortunately it’s interrupted by escaping ostriches.

Aaaaah, life on a zoo.

So there’s four ostriches and four people. They figure that if they each take a bird, they can bring them all back before any of the birds get to the highway. Tracy, Mike and Nick all bring their animals in pretty quickly, but Lisa has some trouble with her bird. Her approach, lovey-dovey as always, instead makes the ostrich think, “yeah, I can take this bitch,” and it starts pecking her.

Ostriches can be fucking vicious, and Lisa, being blind, can’t dodge. She quickly becomes utterly panicked. Nick charges in and scares the ostrich back into the herd. Lisa’s shaken, but recovers quickly, and wonders what went wrong. Nick answers that sometimes you just have to cut the sweet talk and show them who’s boss. She admits he has a point, which Nick makes sure to milk for all it’s worth until her gratitude turns into exasperation.

Awww, he’s learning how to be a brother!

So point one to the macho method, but Lisa’s back up for the next round. After she is bandaged up, she finds Nick once against wrestling unsuccessfully with Gus. She starts sweet talking and cuddling the little guy, and suddenly Gus opens his mouth for the bottle. After a little experimentation, they realize that when they lean on his trunk, he feels like his mother is above him and he’s ready to eat. Go team gender diversity!

Just as Nick is talking about them having solved their gender related issues, Whit shows up, bringing Jessica and Janelle, the twin girls. Nick is taken aback, as Mike didn’t actually get to the “fyi, we got more kids coming on board” part of the talk. There was a little crisis with some escaped dinosaurs, remember?

Well, this is inconvenient, as Jessica and Janelle are Black, and at first they worry that he’s reacting to that. Of course it’s just that he’s surprised by new people, plus now he’s outnumbered by girls three to one. These two kids, already stressed by their mother’s health crisis and being taken in by strangers, had to also experience a moment of worry that they were going to be stuck with a massive racist, only to learn that he’s just a slight misogynist. What a hilarious misunderstanding!

So… yeah. That ending was awkward as hell. I’d love to go into a whole rant about the problems with introducing someone’s marginalized identity by having an It’s-Not-Bigotry-It’s-Just-A-Misunderstanding Scene (TM), but I really don’t have space for it, so I’ll just acknowledge that it is a problem, and save the why for another time. While I’m acknowledging issues, there’s some cisheteronormativity in both Tracy and Mike’s speeches; as in “of course Nick acts that way, he’s a guy. We can predict the exact ways you two are different based on your genders.” You have to wonder if they would be as supportive of Nick and Lisa’s different personalities if they were both boys, or both girls.

But as far as the episode goes with the moral, their point is awesome. They do have a firm grasp of the heart of inclusion and diversity; different can be good. Different is what makes life interesting and beautiful, and often our differences enable us to help each other. Our talents and strengths can balance each other out, and the benefits of diversity are well worth the work it can sometimes take to get along. AIO and I actually totally agree on this basic principle.

I know all too many liberals who think conservatives don’t get this principle, but I think many of them do, in an abstract sense. I was pretty deeply entrenched in conservative Christian fundamentalism, and I constantly got the message that differences were gifts from God. It wasn’t about a difference of basic principles, but a list of exceptions to that principle; this one doesn’t count as a good difference, nor does this one, nor that, nor that. In my next reviews, I’ll try to not only show how some identities were marginalized, but also try to explain why this happens, and hopefully explore some ideas on how to better address bigotry in our political culture.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I love so many moments, but the scene where Lisa and Nick finally co-operate to help Gus is so fulfilling and heartwarming. And it has a happy baby elephant! It’s tough to compete with that.

Worst Part: Jessica and Janelle’s awkward introduction.

Morality Rating: This is an important idea, well illustrated by the story. A+

Story Rating: Funny, well paced and brings the main idea up in a way that feels natural. A+

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Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: An Act of Nobility

Now, before I get to AIO’s coverage of social and political issues, I’m going into the second meta-moralizing episode. Last time, I talked about how their standard format can lead to some spectacularly bland storytelling, and rather confusing messages, because they are often unwilling to break the mold when the story demands it. This time, I’m going to talk about a dissonance between their confidence and their understanding.

The episode opens with Isaac moping at Whit’s End about surprise homework. Seems that, in history class, his teacher asked if anybody knew what nobility meant, and Isaac said it was kings and dukes and lords and so on. Whit immediately thinks he knows the problem.

“Let me guess. She said there was a lot more to nobility than rank and title.”

No, Whit, it’s a fucking history class, not an ethics or philosophy class. The word may have multiple meanings but in this context she is clearly looking for a description of the feudal system… oh wait. That’s exactly what she said?

Well, that’s a plot twist.

She then made Isaac write a report on the true meaning of nobility, even though he apparently still doesn’t have a clue what she meant. Okay then.

So Whit offers to- No, hang on. I’m still not over this. You mean to tell me that she brought up the topic of nobility, in a history class, told the first kid who answered that he was wrong, and then just moved on? What did she bring nobility up for if it wasn’t going to be integral to the lesson? And what the hell was with the random punishment homework?

Maybe she actually asked the class for a definition of mobility, and when Isaac piped up she thought, “oh, a derailing smartass, I’ll show him,” then continued her lesson on early capitalism and the opportunities brought by re-emergence of the merchant middle class in medieval Europe.

Anyway, Whit offers to tell a story to help Isaac understand the true meaning of nobility. He has one stipulation though; Isaac can’t use the story in his report. You’d think this is because plagiarism is a bad habit to start this young, but you’d only think that because you haven’t heard other AIO episodes. Whit does this all the time. He tells stories to kids who can’t think of ideas for their biography paper or history report, and at the end they’re all, “gee whiz, Mr. Whitaker, what a great story! I’ll sit down and write up those things you said right now!” Apparently teachers in Odyssey accept, “the nice old man from the ice cream shop told me” as a cited reference. Which leaves Whit’s refusal to let Isaac use the story in his paper as mysteerrriiiooouuussss.

Whit’s story centers around an American named James Armer, who is vacationing in the quaint little Slavic nation of Muldavia. He’s out for a walk one day when he sees a plane in trouble. When it crashes in a nearby field, he runs out to help, but a pair of men appear and yell at him to get away. As soon as they set eyes on him, they are stunned, and he barks at them to help the pilot. The three of them get the pilot out and into James’ cabin, and the reason for their reaction becomes plain. James and the pilot look identical; what’s more the pilot is none other than Crown Prince Roderick of Muldavia.

Now’s as good a time as any to reveal that Whit is basically retelling The Prisoner of Zenda.

The two men are General Farnam and Dr. Monroe, two trusted advisers (with weirdly non-Slavic names) to the royal family, and the prince ran off to enjoy a bit of freedom before the coronation. They had been following him on foot because they were concerned… They mention that luckily his plane isn’t very fast, so this was possible, but it still bothered me. I mean, they weren’t just keeping it in sight. They were on it, immediately, the moment it crashed. I did a little research, and the slowest planes are still in the 30-45 mph range. Slower than that and they physically can’t stay airborne. Plus, this one is the private toy of a crown prince. I can buy that with a little country he can’t afford the biggest, fastest one in existence, but he’s got to have one at least a notch above the slowest in the world. Old timey-ness isn’t an excuse either. Even the Wright brother’s second flight went 37 mph, and we got to 100 mph planes within the first decade of manned aircraft… I’m spending way too much time on this. Sorry guys.

So, it turns out the crash was no accident. Dr. Monroe recovers a wine bottle from the wreckage, which he says was drugged. He and General Farnam pour over the label that says Von Warburg sellers, while James, to his credit, freaks out over the fact that this motherfucker was drinking and flying at the same time!

They’re all, “yes, yes, we’re very concerned, he’s so irresponsible, but still. The real issue is that he’s rightful heir to the throne, while Baron Von Warburg is an illegitimate cousin, so that’s where our moral priorities lie.” Furthermore, Prince Roderick refuses to listen to his adviser’s info on how corrupt and evil Von Warburg is. If Roderick doesn’t make it to the coronation, and thanks to his drugged state he won’t, he forfeits the crown and the evil cousin can take over.

James, having now been convinced of the rightfulness of this hereditary monarchy, offers to dress up as Roderick for the coronation and switch back once Roderick recovers.

So the next day he gets crowned while Baron Von Warburg bemoans the failure of his evil plan, in an extra slimy voice to prove that he’s a villain. The trio head back to the cabin, where the Prince has woken up and is totally incapable of grasping that this scheme was devised to help him. He insists that clearly James the imposter is out to take his throne permanently, with the two advisers’ aide… or possibly just fooling them… he’s fuzzy on the details. This particular part isn’t bad writing. They are intentionally establishing Prince Roderick as entitled and too dumb to come up with a decent conspiracy plot to justify his own knee-jerk suspicions. So, he’s not only a thrill-seeking alcoholic but also utterly devoid of common sense. Are we sure we don’t want Von Warburg to take over? He isn’t a swell guy either, but his only definite crime is the attempted assassination, I could see that being the act of a morally grey character trying to avert a greater catastrophe. Hardly unprecedented; Catherine the Great’s husband died of a mysterious and convenient illness shortly after she got sneaky-coronated, and she was one of Russia’s less sucky rulers.

And speaking of Von Warburg, he was suspicious of the failure of his brilliant attempt and followed the trio after the ceremony. He and his henchmen burst in with a gun, announce that A. yes they are totally evil, and were from the beginning B. they figure they will just shoot everybody and stage it like they killed each other off. And as the only armed people in the room, they can do this quite easily, right now. Too easily for the plot, so instead Von Warburg tells his henchman to go tie them up first. Now Von Warburg can’t shoot into the crowd without risking hitting his own man, and they’re both already outnumbered two to one, so the heroes have the advantage back. James plays the hero by tackling the henchmen, there’s a scuffle, and unsurprisingly the villains do not come out well.

A few days after everything goes down, Roderick and James are taking a walk and having a heart to heart. Roderick apologizes for being a dick… well, he’s still a clueless reckless irresponsible dolt, but he owns it when he is proven wrong, so he’s at least one qualification better than the dude pretending to run my country.

Obviously James can’t have any special recognition, as that will ruin the whole deception, but Roderick insists on giving him something. James says he lost his watch on the way over, and Roderick gives him a lovely pocket watch that plays a tune when you open it. They part ways, after some reflections about how interesting it is that James acted more kingly than the guy who was technically king.

Whit triumphantly announces that he has now illustrated what true nobility is all about. So, I guess, being brave and doing things for the good of others and stuff. Not wrong, but a little vague. Really what’s going on here is that we went on expecting good behavior from nobles for so many generations, cause clearly God would only have rewarded them with such power and status if they were good, and after a while the world “nobility” came to mean both “not a peasant” and “generally being a swell kind of person.” Whit could have saved himself a lot of time.

Isaac walks off, with a parting line about how it’s too bad that stories like that don’t ever happen in real life, then another kid asks Whit what time it is. Whit opens up a pocket watch that plays the same music as the one Roderick gives to James. So clearly the real reason Whit didn’t want Isaac to tell it is because it’s a super secret real adventure he had, and if it ever gets out, say in a shitty homework assignment from one kid, then the political stability of the kingdom of Muldavia would be destroyed!

Wait, it’s still a hereditary monarchy? Did the USSR just go, “comrades, this place is too tiny for even us to give a shit about,” or what?

In my regular sections, I hold AIO to a high standard. I don’t just criticize them for bad messages and messages poorly conveyed. I point out what they never bring up, and I do that because AIO markets itself as such a great and comprehensive moral authority. I thought it was important to review an episode that illustrates this. Normally this emphasis comes from Chris’s intros and outros, but as I said last time, they are pretty bland and I don’t want to go into them every time. But they are there. They do give an impressionable kid the sense that these are stories you should be paying attention to, because they know everything. To be honest, little kid me loved this episode because it had castles and fights in it, but I didn’t really get the point about nobility. But I assumed they knew what they were talking about, because this is Adventures in Odyssey! They are so confident about how much they know all the things!

Yet when you break it down, we don’t even get a clear idea of what the moral sense of nobility is. On the one hand, we clearly have James being brave and self-sacrificing, but in ways that the average person will never get a chance to be. So we have to see these actions as a sort of synecdoche. He’s using a small example of moral action as a stand in for generally holding oneself to a high standard and being willing to do what’s right at a high personal cost. Also, is the point that we shouldn’t worry about NOT being royalty, since we can already be noble in our behavior? Or that hierarchy is meaningless without right behavior to back it up? Either way, it’s  not a very meaningful point to their audience of modern American children. We told the nobility to stuff it back in 1776.

There’s nothing wrong with putting out a meh episode every now and then. There is something wrong with building yourself up as the moral authority when some days you can’t even get your own message straight.

Final Ratings

Best Bit: The fight scene was pretty exciting to me when I was a kid. The sheer stupidity of the villains’ action brings it down a few notches, but the narration is still well done. Plus, there’s not a lot of competition, so by process of elimination… yeah.

Worst Bit: Oh god. Do I pick the watch thing? The history teacher? The bit where they followed a plane on foot? It’s a hard call, but since the history homework frame device sets up so many problems in the rest of the story, I have to go with that. Close call though.

Story Rating: All they did was rip off The Prisoner of Zenda, and they weren’t even that creative about it. Hell, even their choice of which book to rip off is uncreative. Everybody has done a Prisoner of Zenda. Doctor Who’s version had androids. D

Moral Rating: Yes yes, it’s very good to be a good person, as opposed to a not-good one. C

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The Time of Our Lives

(sorry for the delay. I thought I’d work a half shift today, come home, do a final polish, and post it only an hour or so late. But at work things got, well, let’s just say it didn’t end up being a half shift. Again, so sorry!)

This is my fourth and last review on the topic of stewardship, so I want to emphasize that AIO loves this topic. In fact, now is a good time to explain that the more they cover a topic, the fewer episodes I end up reviewing. This and the previous mental health section are perfect illustrations of why. They covered mental health sporadically, often indirectly, and episodes sometimes contradicted each other, yet as a kid I didn’t pick up on how poorly they understand the issue. I cobbled their incoherent explanations into something that needed to be debunked later in my life. As a result, nearly every episode that touched on mental health demanded its own review. With stewardship, their position was so coherent and comprehensive that I could easily pick some representative highlights. Many episodes were, essentially, “the first story from Tales of Moderation, but as it’s own episode” or “Making the Grade, but with chores.” And many of them were great stories, but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover with this series. I gotta move on sometime.

Anyway, this episode is a show within a show; an Adventures in Odyssey episode presented as an in-universe episode of Kid’s Radio. I don’t think I’ve explained Kid’s Radio before. It’s um, a radio station. In Odyssey. For kids. Pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.

This Kid’s Radio special is a Twilight Zone parody, with Connie doing a rather bad female-Rod-Serling impression. It’s called the Twi-Life Zone, because it’s life lessons I guess?

We are first introduced to thirteen year old Kathy, who loves malls. LOOOOVES malls. All her spare time is spent at the mall. As she wanders with her friend Julie, they check out a piano store, where Kathy plays a piece and talks about her dreams of playing Carnegie Hall and marrying Kyle from their school. They then split up briefly, so Kathy can check on a sale that Julie isn’t interested in. When Kathy finishes and tries to find her, she instead finds a woman in her twenties who claims to be Julie. When Kathy looks in the mirror, she realizes she too has aged to twenty-three.

That’s right, it was a tiiiimme waaaaarp!!!!!

Julie is getting married, and Kathy, having been thirteen five minutes ago, had no idea. Julie isn’t surprised, and snidely responds that she sent the invite to the mall. That’s not how that works, Julie. Not unless Kathy manages a store there or something, which, given that the whole moral is how she’s wasting her time at the mall, is probably not the case.

From here, the story becomes fairly repetitive. Kathy tries to do things she took for granted, like play the piano, and finds her adult self has forgotten them. She encounters people she knew, barely recognizes them, and finds they’ve moved on with their lives. In every case, the cause for her loss keeps returning to the mall. She spends all her time there, and so she has lost anything else that might matter to her.

The idea of time travelling as a metaphor for time wasting is cool, but to work, Kathy should only encounter things that she could have lost either by time travelling, or by repeatedly choosing a fun but unproductive activity over things with more lasting consequences.  Some problems Kathy encounters fit this. She has lost touch with her best friend, doesn’t know her baby nephew’s name, and she can no longer play the piano. On the other hand, a good chunk of the story is spent establishing that her family moved in the past ten years and she’s forgotten where they, or she, now live. That’s horrifying, but not really a “wasted your time in the mall” problem. It’s an “I was involuntarily sucked into a wormhole” problem. Then there’s the fact that her crush ended up marrying somebody else; hate to break it to you Kathy, but that probably would have happened anyway. At the same time, she has up to date information on every sale in a ten mile radius, and the exact fabric content of a dress that adult Kathy bought. So, does she only know what she knew at age 13, or does she also have the information of adult Kathy? If the former, how does she know exactly where tennis shoes are 40% off, and if the latter, why the fuck can’t she find her own house?

Additionally, we are told she is obsessed with the mall, but not shown that she is neglecting everything else. We literally see (well, hear) her practice piano in the piano store, and she does a damn good job. Obsession alone is not evidence of wasted time; everybody needs down time, as other AIO episodes acknowledge.

Kathy story ends abruptly, and we turn to the story of Jeremy, chronic watcher of television. One day, the police break in. Unbeknownst to Jeremy, TVs are now illegal, due to their inherent time sucking properties. The cops lecture him, confiscate his TV and suggest that he go read a book or something.

“Go read a book” is such a cliche, and when you think about it, is it inherently more constructive? I suppose a even a bad book demands some level of thought and focus, while you can mindlessly flip through channels, not even fully absorbing the content. Plus, you get fewer product placements in a book. That said, there are books that are trashy, ill informed wastes of time, and shows that are truly thought provoking and artistic. Is a book really inherently better than a TV show of similar quality? Or do we just dump on TV because it is new? Fun fact; novels were once considered lurid wastes of time, and dangerous to a person’s mental stability. Especially when women read them.

Anyway Jeremy gives up reading after about one sentence, goes looking for something else to do, and finds an old mini television in the garage. He turns it on, and it works okay. But the police get a random hunch that he’s got another set, double back at the exact right time and catch him. Also somehow they know to check the garage first, even though last time they burst into his living room. Because…..?

Also, where the heck are Jeremy’s parents in all this? There is a line between exaggerated metaphor and weird shit pulled from your ass. And if you look behind you, right now, you might even be able to see it.

Anyway, Jeremy takes off, carrying the TV, with the cops in hot pursuit. He, a kid who rarely leaves his couch, and is lugging an old appliance, manages to outpace several adults trained in foot pursuit, and he is only foiled in his escape by the random appearance of a cliff.

Obviously, his first move is to throw the TV over it. Cause, you know, he loves it so much he can’t bear to see them take it? And destroying it is better?

One cop’s immediate response is a dismayed “there goes the evidence!” Hey, dipshit, if you need it that bad, there’s probably recognizably TV-ish fragments around there somewhere. Plus, you broke into a private home without a warrant, terrorized an unsupervised child, and then went back to do it a second time on a whim. I’m pretty sure you’re living in a dystopic police state.

Anyway, they then attempt to arrest him, and he jumps. Off the cliff. Because TV.

You know, every consequence of his bad habit has come directly from the fact of it being illegal. If he were just sitting on his own, he might arguably be making bad choices for his own health, but he wouldn’t be choosing between the prison industrial complex and a literal cliff. Plus, we can clearly see that the cops don’t actually have a workable plan for dealing with Jeremy’s problem. They just take away this thing he’s become dependent on. Then when he fails to immediately adapt to this TV-less world, they hound him, a kid in an emotionally fucked up state. All without bothering to wonder what so messed up this kid’s life that he ended up in this state of dependence in the first place.

Lane must now pause, take a deep breathe, remember this is not the episode to discuss his views on the war on drugs. Breathe in. Breathe out. Save it for another rant. Okay, I’m good now.

The cops continue their “magically knowing things” streak by assuming that he survived the fall and will be making it for the state lines. Apparently TV watching is still legal in neighboring states. They mount a full-scale manhunt for this one kid, and when they find him, the main cop rappels down from a friggin’ helicopter, where he… lets Jeremy go. Not because he’s realized the absurdity of this law, but because living as a TV-obsessed person will punish him more than they ever could.

whut

what?

WHAAAAAAAAATTTTT!

THEN WHY THE HELL DO YOU HAVE THIS LAW IN THE FIRST PLACE!

WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK??!!

Yeah, that line of ridiculousness is not even visible from here.

Both protagonists then meet up as adults in a Time Wasters Anonymous meeting to talk about how they need help. Then, instead of demonstrating a story arc where they use therapy to learn how to prioritize better and work on their problems, the Twi-life zone conceit is suddenly revealed, and they are sent back in time to change their child selves. They find their younger selves hanging out in the appliance section of a department store, where Kathy can shop while Jeremy watches TV. So, in order to change their pasts and save their futures, they run up and yell about how they must have “something more constructive to do.”

Shockingly, a cliched line that never works when actual parents say it also doesn’t work when utter strangers say it. Even when those utter strangers accost you in a mall claiming they’re your future selves. Kathy and Jeremy scoff and leave, while adult Kathy and Jeremy are left crying that they are trapped in the Twi-life Zone foooorrreeeevvveeeerrrr!

No, like, literally. They say that, with the long drawn out echoy wail on “forever.” It’s bad.

There are obvious problems with this one, but the biggest one is that they are using circumstances outside the protagonist’s control to demonstrate a problem that is all about choices. Kathy didn’t choose to enter a wormhole, and Jeremy didn’t choose to ban TV. We are forced to take the narrator’s word for it that they would suffer with or without those things; their obsessions are told, not shown.

For all that, the moral isn’t bad. It’s more just lazy. Obviously, you can waste your time on things that are fun but pointless. Obviously there are things that are difficult in the short term, but more rewarding in the long run, and it can be easy to understand that, but much harder to choose, moment by moment, to do the harder thing.

Unfortunately, the writers of this story seem to have just assumed that, since their premise was obviously correct, they could throw just anything together and create a good episode. They didn’t. They really didn’t.

Final Ratings

Best Part: No truly good moments. Most scenes self-sabotage in one way or another. The only real exception is the moment where Kathy’s old piano teacher proves she can’t play anymore. They successfully made their point, and gave it some authentic emotional impact, which shows what this episode could have been if, ironically, they had put more time and effort into it. 

Worst Part: Why the fucking hell would you go through all that just to let him go?!?!?!?!

Story Rating: Oh god. D-

Moral Rating: If they didn’t repeatedly state that this is about wasting time, one could be forgiven for assuming this was an episode about how TV and malls are inherently evil. As it is, their intent was made extremely obvious, so I can hold off talking about that problem for now. C-

Final Ratings For Stewardship Topic

Best Episode: Tales of Moderation

Worst Episode: Time of Our Lives

Good Things They Said: Don’t make money and material goods the center of your life. Seek a good work/life balance. Realize that your goals will require work to accomplish, and not all of that work will be fun. If you spend all your time doing things you want to do now, you miss out on future opportunities. Do take breaks and take care of yourself, but don’t be tempted into an easy route that will end up hurting you or someone else. 

Bad Things They Said: Honestly, there wasn’t anything I would consider bad, just times that the good ideas listed above weren’t handled very well. I reviewed what I thought were their three greatest episodes and one of their worst, but they fill the full spectrum between these extremes. 

Things They Failed to Address: So, in right-wing conservative world, there’s a common assumption that the problems of the poor can be solved simply by giving them better values and shit. There’s no admission that there may be systemic issues of inequality that need to be addressed on a social level; that’s a thought that at best doesn’t occur to them, and at worst is rejected outright. This show doesn’t do anything to correct that. 

But honestly, there’s a difference between a set of values being bad, and simply not being a panacea. There weren’t any episodes, as far as the ones I had access to, that directly blamed poor people for their poverty. There are other problems with how the show handles social and political problems, but those are better discussed elsewhere. Like in my next section, for example!

Overall Rating: I want to give this a full A, but episodes like Time of Our Lives do exist, and lazy writing in an episode about personal responsibility irks me so much I’m tempted to give them an A-, just for spite. What do you think, award winning comedy Community?

Okay, fine. I’m keeping the D and C minuses above, cause those were super earned, but the overall topic gets a full A.

 

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Making the Grade

This episode opens with Lawrence Hodges making an invisibility potion to escape the evil agents of Destructo, which to the uninitiated looks an awful lot like hiding in his closet to avoid science homework. His mother, being one of those uninitiated, says that until he does his homework he won’t go to the Barclay family’s party. This is enough to make Lawrence abandon his top secret mission and participate in the reality occupied by the rest of us. Albeit reluctantly.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned Lawrence yet, but that paragraph tells you pretty much everything you need to know.

Lawrence is excited mainly so he can hang out with Jimmy Barclay, his babysitter/cool older friend, but the party is really more of a celebration for the parents. George Barclay has recently been accepted into seminary school, to fulfill his dream of being a pastor. Mary Barclay is pregnant with their third child. Everyone is excited for the new family member. They’re less enthusiastic about her cravings for anchovies on ice cream, mashed potatoes topped with caramel popcorn and ketchup frosted chocolate cake.

In the wake of all these changes, Jimmy is thinking about what he wants to do with his life, especially now that career day is coming up. It’s going to be a big deal. He’s going to fill out questionnaires, meet with counselors, and potentially even get to take a field trip. As he has been looking over his options, he has found himself obsessively returning to the idea of being a paramedic. He loves the thought of being first in line in the fight to save somebody’s life.

George encourages him, as does Lawrence, when he finally gets there. Granted, Lawrence doesn’t actually know what a paramedic does, but he figures that if it’s something Jimmy wants to do, it’s automatically awesome. Lawrence, by the way, wants to work for the NSA and the FBI, as a double agent. I don’t think anyone has explained to him what a double agent actually is.

While Jimmy meets with the counselor, Lawrence gets into another battle with his mother over science homework. With the lure of the Barclay’s party gone, she is forced to rely on the old “no TV until it’s done” game. Which, of course, is easily thwarted by watching TV when she’s not around. So she tries for making homework a little more fun. What if he’s a world famous spy trying to smuggle formulas out of the enemy countries?

“Nice try Mom, but I already tried that. World famous spies only need to know how to get the formulas out, not why E=MC squared.”

Yeah, she really shouldn’t have tried to out-imagine Lawrence. What makes this all worse is that she’s a teacher herself. Unfortunately she teaches history, so she can’t counter his defend Einstein’s formula with a description of spacetime itself bending to preserve the speed of light. So she plays the Mom card instead.

Willing to concede the battle, but not the war, Lawrence goes to enlist Jimmy’s help. He finds Jimmy practicing CPR on his sister’s doll. The counselor loved his idea, is taking him on one of those cool field trips to meet professionals in his field of interest. He’s nervous, and wants to impress his paramedic mentor with first aid knowledge. So on the whole, Jimmy is a bit distracted right now. But he can relate to Lawrence’s detestation of science, and promises that, after he’s done academically overachieving, he’ll help Lawrence underachieve.

So he goes to meet the paramedic, and finds the job as cool as he thought, but then gets a nasty shock. Turns out, science is relevant to the medical field. Whoda thunk it? To impress this on him, the paramedic delivers rapid fire questions about hypertension, conversion rates, and second vs third degree burns, barely giving Jimmy time to realize he doesn’t know before hitting him with another question. The paramedic emphasizes that he doesn’t want Jimmy to be discouraged. But he does want Jimmy to understand that, as a paramedic, his ability to recall this information instantly will be the difference between someone else’s life or death.

This is a completely fair thing to do, but it does mean Jimmy comes home pretty depressed. George gives him a talk. As a new seminary student, he can relate to not loving his studies. He is taking eschatology, hermeneutics and Ancient Greek, and can barely get through the titles of his classes without wanting to fall asleep. But he’s going to do it, because he wants to be the best pastor he can. Even as he says this, George admits that he feels like he’s being a bad role model.

“I feel like I’ve just broken one of the cardinal rules of parenting… you know, the one that says ‘Thou shalt not admit disliking school.'”

Jimmy has the opposite view, however. A moment of vulnerable honesty has had more impact on him than years of rote lines about the value of education. And it inspires him to go be a better role model himself.

As the rules of narrative progression dictate, he goes to see Lawrence just in time to witness another homework argument. His mother has reached the point of threatening to sell the TV and anything else fun. Lawrence counters that he would rather have splinters pushed under his toenails and be covered in killer bees than do any more homework. She calmly says “that can be arranged.” Yeah, she’s all out of fucks.

Jimmy dashes Lawrence’s hopes of reinforcement. He admits that all this boring crap (seriously, someone get them some Neil DeGrasse Tyson lectures!) is important after all. He’s not willing to enable Lawrence’s procrastination. He is, however, willing to give some free tutoring. He’s got catching up to do, and teaching Lawrence is probably a decent way to give himself a refresher. Lawrence is torn. On the one hand, the agents of Destructo are, at this very moment, gaining the advantage while he and his elders are all distracted by such trivial matters. On the other hand, in his world Jimmy is basically God. In the end, hero worship wins the day. Jimmy has probably spared us all an annoying Broadchurch “how could such a horrifying child murder happen in a swell town like this” storyline.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Once again, I love George’s talk. The decision to make this a moment of empathy rather than a state-the-theme lecture was a good one; the theme is definitely there, but the scene has authenticity and catharsis that those scenes can so easily lack.

Worst Part: There’s a scene I left out, just before George and Jimmy’s talk, where Jimmy talks to his sister Donna about careers that wouldn’t require doing well in some kind of academia. They settle on politics. Seriously? You don’t need to study for politics? Look, I know politicians are eternally fun to dump on, but this kind of thinking how we get Trump and Kim Jong-Un playing “I’m not touching you” with nukes.

Although, technically they’ve both got high ranking jobs in the field, so maybe she has a point. The distant rattling you hear is my nervous laughter in the face of the Apocalypse.

Story Rating: Fun and funny. A little obvious where it’s going, but executed well enough to make up for that. A

Moral Rating: It follows the same pattern of common sense expressed clearly. Gets it’s message across while still having fun and not being condescending. A+

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Easy Money

Up next in the discussion of stewardship, we have the epic saga of two kids who reeeeally want to play street hockey.

Sam Johnson and Brian “Butch” Evans are looking at gear and finding out that quality sports equipment is expensive. Neither of them think their parents will help, but Sam suggests taking on odd jobs. Butch vows that he’ll do whatever it takes. Guess which one quits after their first gig?

In all fairness, they spend two hours scrubbing the floor of a mechanic’s garage, who says the cleaner they get it the more they’ll be paid, but when it’s paycheck time it’s suddenly a flat three dollars an hour rate. This is from 1995, so that’s maybe not quite as bad as it would be now, but it’s still a shit deal. Especially since the equipment they are saving for is apparently over $50.

Sam, who has zero negotiating skills, accepts. Butch storms out, and on his way home he meets Mac. Now, in this episode, Sam has a normal person name and generic midwestern accent, Butch has a tough guy nickname but a generic accent, and Mac has the tough guy nickname and a bad New York accent. So you can pretty much figure out the morality alignment right there. Mac hears about Butch’s money troubles, and tells him he can get money without lifting a finger. He bets Butch he can make a tough jump shot, fails, and hands over a dollar, and a business card.

Basically, Mac’s a bookie.

You know, AIO and it’s Christian ilk is full of characters trying to corrupt our protagonists, so as to make conservative fundie kids feel properly paranoid about the secular world. But hey, at least this version of the trope has an actual motive.

Anyway, the mechanic offers Sam a steady job. All he has to do is get up at 5:30 am so he can bike over to the garage, scrub floors for an hour, accept three dollars for his trouble, and then make it to school having already exhausted himself. What a swell and non-exploitative guy. Sam asks his parents’ permission, and after talking to him about making sure it doesn’t take too much out of him, and being willing to stop if he can’t handle it, they say it’s okay. I’d complain about this, but you know, I do think kids need to take risks. I’d call it irresponsible parenting if they weren’t keeping any kind of eye on him, but since that’s not the case, I think this is awesome. Plus, I’m pretty sure they don’t know how badly he’s being compensated. Man, I know it was the nineties, but that still bothers me.

From here, the progression of the characters is easy to foresee. Butch takes bigger and bigger risks, but as he keeps winning, he has no intention of quitting, even after he can afford the hockey equipment. And Sam, well, there’s this one scene where he’s reminded that he promised to put together a booth for some charity carnival. He tries to sit down and think of ideas but can’t stay awake. In the end, he shows up with a garbage can and a bunch of balls for people to toss in, and if they succeed they get to pick from an exciting box of junk Sam could grab out of his room. Mr. Barclay gives it a go and tries so hard to be polite and seem so thrilled to have won a pencil. With teeth marks on it. By throwing a ball about two feet. Meanwhile Sam is such a zombie he wouldn’t notice if Gordon Ramsey himself showed up.

And yet, when the mechanic offers to let him come in even earlier, Sam says yes. This time he doesn’t check with his parents, but just agrees to wake up at 4:30, in the interest of getting his hockey gear a few weeks earlier. No doubt, despite protesting that Butch is earning his money the wrong way, he is irked that Butch beat him to the games. But he doesn’t keep this up for long before his father catches him sneaking out. Instead of forcing him to quit, Sam’s dad talks him through the things he has jeopardized for this job. He’s falling asleep in school and church, he’s risking his health, and he isn’t able to fulfill any other responsibilities. There’s a difference between honestly earning something, and making a job your only priority. Sam decides that, after today, he will quit the job, and go back to after school odd jobs.

Butch’s overconfidence in his hot streak finally starts to kick him in the pants. It’s ambiguous whether he is honestly losing, or whether Mac fed him easy wins until he was hooked enough to bet big and lose big. Regardless, after cleaning him out of his savings, Mac tantalizes Butch with the huge stakes in the upcoming Odyssey/Connellsville game. Butch sells his baseball card collection to get into the pot, and is still short of the minimum bet. He borrows 50 bucks from Mac, and promptly loses it.

And what ironic consequence does this episode have in store? Well, Mac strongarms him into giving up the hockey equipment, of course. Butch loses his taste for gambling, and joins Sam once again on his odd jobs.

All of this hits a good balance between having a clear moral, but willing to avoid a single, simple state the theme moment. It explores a few different nuances of the idea of earning money responsibly; avoiding scams, recognizing when you’re being played, putting in honest work, not shortchanging other priorities in the single minded pursuit of one goal. One thing I like about morality tales with a bit more scope is that they encourage a person to think in terms of overall balance. When AIO tells one story with a single target theme, then another story with a single target theme, I feel like they’ve expressed two ideas, and I want to criticize them for the third and fourth and fifth ideas that they have neglected. When they acknowledge in one story that there’s a need to look out for multiple wrong paths and pitfalls, they’re suggesting that the world doesn’t always offer a single clear path, and that you have too look at all the variables and alternatives. They’re encouraging analysis of a problematic human tendency, not rigid adherence to a single maxim.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I really love the consistent emphasis from Sam’s Dad on independence. So often AIO parents are little autocrats, and in the real world this creates adults who don’t know how to think for themselves. Sam, on the other hand, gets a balance of guidance and autonomy, and I think that’s great. 

Worst Part: I can usually think of something, but I’m honestly drawing a blank.

Story Rating: Events move at a nice engaging pace, there’s a good use of humor, it all comes to a satisfying end… Yeah, good job on this one. A+

Moral Rating: Good ideas explored with common sense. A+

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Tales of Moderation

Welcome to my second themed series. This one is on stewardship, which is a term I haven’t heard outside of my old evangelical Christian circles, though I’ve certainly encountered the concept. It encompasses discipline, financial responsibility and proper use of one’s talents. In Adventures in Odyssey, and other Christian media, these values were bundled together by the idea that we are all stewards of God’s gifts. In the last series, on mental health, they sometimes made good points, but overall failed to address the most important realities of trauma and emotional pain. Let’s see how they do with this one.

The episode opens with Connie helping Whit clean out his garage. Well, no, I lie. It opens with her praying, and thanking God for her amazing friend Whit, and then stating that he (God) is probably wondering why she’s bringing this up. Apparently she missed the memo on omniscience.

Anyway, while Whit and Connie were working, Connie rather self-consciously brought up a personal question. Whit owns Whit’s End, which he does not make a profit on. He also owns a publishing corporation, and has a hand in a few other businesses, here and there. In other words, he’s wealthy. Yet he lives in a house that Connie thinks isn’t much better than hers. Why doesn’t he live in luxury?

Whit admits that he once did live much more extravagantly, but he found that a simple life of moderation suited him better. Connie can’t imagine how that would be, and as an answer, Whit gives her a book of short stories that he claims will explain his reasons better than he can. At his urging, she takes a break and starts reading.

The first story is about two farmers. Their names are Bill and Ted and I have completely forgotten which one is which. I could go back and listen again, or I could just call them Farmer Woah and Farmer Dude.

So Farmer Woah and Farmer Dude both have an incredible harvest. They meet up in town to discuss what they’re going to do with their bounty. Farmer Woah declares that he’s going to live it up. He’s worked hard and he is ready to party. Farmer Dude, on the other hand, is going to divide up what he gets. Some will be saved, some donated to the poor, some donated to the church, and he will keep about a quarter to live on. Farmer Woah laughs at him, and Farmer Dude patiently says that he hopes Farmer Woah has a good time.

Farmer Woah certainly does. He eats out every night, throws giant parties, and buys a shiny new truck; one with all the impressive car words, like V-8 and turbo-charged. Farmer Dude settles for meat and potatoes at home, celebrates the New Year with his family, and repairs his old pickup.

The next year, the Blights show up. The Blights are a family of insects who, after politely introducing themselves, devour every single one of their crops, leaving Farmer Woah and Farmer Dude with nothing.

Farmer Woah is penniless. He loses his car, dumpster dives for meals, and finally has to take advantage of the charities Farmer Dude has supported. Farmer Dude, having saved so much of his previous bounty, gets to spend the year exactly as well as he did the year before. The point being, shit happens. Don’t blow all your luck at once.

Whit comes to check on her, and she says she liked the first story, though the moral was pretty obvious. Whit comments that common sense usually is. Not unkindly, but man, that was an unexpected burn. It’s not often that he turns on the snark. Next Whit asks if Connie knew what the moral was before she read it, and she admits that she didn’t, despite how obvious it seems in retrospect. He laughs and says maybe the next one will be a little less obvious. The whole scene is actually a pretty great bit of banter. This is early in Whit and Connie’s relationship, and the back-and-forth is just barby enough to show they can pick on each other without crossing a line. In other episodes I’ve complained that the Whit/Connie relationship has uncomfortably blurry boundaries and squicky power dynamics, but this time, they don’t have that problem.

The second story follows a young man who defines happiness as complete self-sufficiency. When he comes into a lot of money, he puts it all into having an up to date, fully automatic home. All goes well, until the morning his toaster starts talking to him. The shiny new gadget has, somehow, turned into a stained, crumb filled mess. It’s almost like we exist in a universe where entropy increases or something. If the young man wants good toast, he needs to periodically scrub out his toaster. And it’s not just the toaster who has a beef with him. Every appliance, from his razor to his TV to his personal shower massager has issues.

Let the record show that all the appliances have male voices except the personal shower massager. I would consider that sexist and unfunny, except there is no way in hell AIO intentionally made a masturbation joke. They don’t try to slip things past the censors. This show is where good little censors go after they die. The writers probably just figured practical things are male, froofy unnecessary things are female, and who needs more than one female character amirite? Still sexist, but the fact that they have no idea what they just did is hilarious.

Anyway, at first the young man complies with the machines’ requests, but soon he finds that he is spending more time cleaning his products than enjoying them. He snaps, hollers at all of them that if they don’t figure out a way to serve him without even the slightest inconvenience, he will turn off their electricity and gas. Which… I’m sure will be very convenient for him? Yeah, if there’s one thing established about this character, it’s that he’s a little short on foresight. He hops smugly into his car, intending to give them all some time to think it over. And, well, no sooner does he turn the engine on, but his car and garage come to life, with full throated gangster voices, asking just where he thinks he’s going.

As Connie says, it’s another fairly obvious moral, but I am constantly surprised by how many people in real life get excited about some new gadget, only to discover that shit breaks. Or needs maintenance. Or is just likely to get outdated. None of that has to be awful. Plenty of new tech is worth the upkeep. It’s just good to remember, when you’re about to get something new, that more stuff never simplifies life in the long run. When you forget that, you get clutter, not convenience.

The third story is a retelling from the Bible. It opens with a young prince who strives to be a good person. He faithfully keeps each of the Ten Commandments, and yet he still goes to every religious teacher and asks, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” All of them confirm that he does not steal, does not murder, does not lie, does not covet, and therefore he has already done everything he needs to do. The prince is satisfied, but only temporarily. As soon as he hears of a different teacher, he must seek them out.

One day, he hears word of another teacher, and finds him preaching in the streets. As the prince draws close enough to listen, he is convinced that this man truly is the greatest of all of them. He asks his question, and confirms that he has kept all the commandments since he was a child. Instead of saying that he is surely guaranteed eternal life, the teacher tells him that one thing remains. He must sell everything he owns, and give it to the poor.

The prince makes excuses to himself, which he doesn’t even seem to quite believe, and leaves in a haze of sorrow, unable to surrender his wealth.

The teacher, of course, is Jesus, and the story is taken from Matthew 19:16-24, which is also where we get that saying about a camel having an easier time going through the eye of a needle than a rich person entering the kingdom of heaven. This is one of those cases where atheism made a Biblical story resonate more, not less, with me. As a child, I just thought, “well, he’s too attached to his material possessions to listen to Jesus, and that’s bad!” Now I see another layer to it. I see the real cost of extravagant wealth. I see what happens to nations where there is a great divide between the wealthy elite and the rest. I see my own country headed that direction, when it was once supposed to be the land of opportunity. It’s not bad to live comfortably; able to fulfill your needs and be free of fear for the future, while having enough left over to pursue your passions and do things with your loved ones. It’s another thing to have more money than you know what to do with, to buy bigger and bigger houses and more and more things just to have something to do with all your money, to accumulate things you won’t ever really use or appreciate, yet be terrified of losing the status attached to your hoard of objects.

And I think there’s another layer to the prince’s story. Everything he does right is an example of goodness by omission. He’s being good by not cheating, not stealing, not dis-respecting people. That’s all well and good, but apart from not harming it, how is he making the world better? For someone who has little influence, avoiding doing anything bad might be the best they can do, but for someone of great power and wealth, goodness has to mean more than just not being an asshole. In fact, it’s poverty and vulnerability that make not being bad costly; when you have the resources to buy whatever you need, how hard is it to not be an awful person? Jesus is asking him to stop worrying about how to avoid doing things that will get him barred from heaven, and start thinking about how what he has can be used to make actual human lives better.

Connie closes the book, and Whit reveals that he’s finished the cleanup on his own, because he felt that Connie was doing something more important. You know, I want to mock this, like by saying that this must not have been a big job, given that an old man finished it alone over the course of a 20 minute episode. Or that he could have always just loaned it to her. But I’ll be honest; this moment got me right in the feels. I’ve mentored kids before, and I know how sometimes you get a sense that they’re about to have a meaningful breakthrough, and you change every plan you had to make sure that breakthrough happens. They captured the feel of that mentor moment well. Connie starts superficially flippant, but the initiative to ask the question, and keep asking for a better answer, shows a deeper hunger to understand something. What’s more, this initiative shows that the hunger is coming on her terms, not on Whit’s. At the end, she doesn’t react with a lot of loud promises to always live in moderation and never be greedy, but by quietly processing the answers she has received, in a way that suggests they will stay with her in the long run.

Final Ratings

Best Part: There’s a lot of great material here, but honestly, I love the last story. I love that it’s simple, that it doesn’t bring in any twist beyond putting you in the mind of the prince, making you share his moment of weakness, and feel for yourself the difference between doing good and doing not-bad. 

Worst Part: Despite how unintentionally funny, I’m gonna go with the female shower massager. Somebody really needs to explain the Bechdel Test to AIO.

Story Rating: I think this triple fable structure was a good choice. Much of quality storytelling comes from knowing yourself. What are you trying to do with your story? How do you prioritize that? AIO cares more about theme than plot, and when they own that, they end up telling better stories. The second frame device is effective; interesting enough to draw you in but not distracting. Each individual story makes time to have fun as it makes its point, and the couple of off moments aren’t big enough to ruin the overall impact of the story. B+

Moral Rating: I like the way the messages of the three fables interact. One goes into the straightforward, practical cost, one into the emotional cost, and one into the moral cost. As Connie stated, these are all common sense, but the effect of the stories is to make that common sense memorable. These fables aren’t about convincing, but reminding us of something we already know. A+

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Let This Mind Be In You

At the end of every episode, an artificially bubbly woman named Chris sums up the events, declares the Official Moral and explains why it’s totally Biblical, even if the connections to the verses quoted are rather tenuous. I don’t often talk about Chris’s summaries because they rarely add anything. When I do mention her, it’s usually because the episode left a tiny window of think-for-yourself complexity open, and she stepped in to slam it shut. And that’s Chris in a nutshell; her only role is to make the official moral transparently clear, which is redundant when the episode properly illustrated it and reductive when not.

Galaxy Quest

I should add, this was my opinion long before I was an atheist. Little Christian me thought she was annoying, everyone I knew thought she was annoying, and I’ve even had current right-wing Christian AIO fans read these reviews and criticize everything but my feelings on Chris.

But honestly, seeing how Chris summarizes the moral is key to understanding a problem with AIO; they are so desperate to invoke Biblical authority that they sometimes undercut their own points.

This episode opens with Whit announcing that he is leaving for a conference, and Connie and Eugene are going to be running Whit’s End for a weekend on their own. Connie in particular is nervous about being on her own, but Whit reassures her that he has left a note with instructions, as well as contact information if they have any questions. His final piece of advice is to just do their best to do what he would do.

The next morning, Connie comes in wearing a grandpa sweater. She’s decided it will help her get into that Mr. Whitaker mentality, thereby establishing that, for the duration of the episode, she will be dumb enough to confuse role models with method acting. She finds Eugene puzzling over two sets of paint cans. They were delivered by a man who knew Whit wanted them but couldn’t remember whether he had ordered light blue or ivory. He doesn’t call Whit for clarification because plot. Anyway, Eugene recalls that Whit said something about wanting to paint the Bible room, and deduces that Whit would prefer ivory. He resolves to get the job done before Whit returns, as a surprise.

Later that day, Jack and Lucy come in, disappointed to find the Bible room is closed for painting. Lucy had mentioned the time Jacob wrestled an angel and won, and Jack doesn’t believe that’s actually in the Bible. They could only think of two ways to resolve this debate; go find Whit, or go to a special room Bible themed room for answers. It’s not like either of them have an actual book to look it up in.

Okay, what’s really going on is that they love Whit’s stories, and they now have an excuse to ask him for one. And who can blame them? He has all the advantages of background music and individualized voice actors for all his characters. Anyway, in the spirit of running the store just like Whit would, Connie decides to give the story a go.

Spoiler alert; she’s not a naturally gifted storyteller. As she starts and restarts the story about six times, Jack and Lucy mumble their apologies and bolt.

A bit later, Connie is called into the Bible room by another kid, who ignored the wet paint signs because she just couldn’t resist all the Bible themed activities. Specifically, she wanted to play with the Talking Mirror. That’s the one that, if you say a Bible verse to it, it will answer with chapter and verse, and vice versa. And it can also… yeah, no, that’s all it can do. What irresistable fun.

The mirror is acting up, repeating “For God so loved the world that he gave-” over and over again in increasingly creepy voices. Connie tries to turn it off, but it only starts talking faster, louder, and creepier. Naturally, she gets spooked, starts hitting anything that might possibly stop it, and finally it does shut off. Because she broke it.

That evening she finds Jimmy Barclay moping. Connie gets him to open up about what’s wrong. A kid at school falsely accused him of stealing a ruler, and the two of them ended up fighting and getting sent to the principal’s office. He really doesn’t want to tell his Dad, and he wishes Whit was around to advise him. Connie says she doesn’t think he has to tell his parents. He’s sorry, and he’s already been punished once. He hardly needs to get in trouble a second time, especially over something that wasn’t really his fault. This cheers Jimmy up immensely, and he heads home.

The next morning, Mr. Barclay comes by to have a talk with Connie. And to be honest, he handles the situation perfectly. He tells Connie that he values her as a family friend, and he knows she didn’t mean to give bad advice, but he and Jimmy are going through a rough time. Jimmy is going through some pre-adolescent changes, and it’s very important to Mr. Barclay that, even at this stage, Jimmy remains able to talk about things he’s going through, even if he’s afraid he might get into trouble. Somebody close to the family advising Jimmy to keep secrets? Really not helping.

There’s some times when I think AIO doesn’t handle parent/child relationships well, or mentor/mentee boundaries, but this isn’t one of those cases. It isn’t spelled out, but you get a strong sense that Mr. Barclay gets that the relationship goes both ways; that he has to be fair in his judgment for Jimmy to trust him. What we see of him in other episodes reinforces that. They also did a really good job picking a conflict where Connie could be clearly in the wrong, but you can also kind of see her logic. I have nothing snarky to say about this whole bit.

Anyway, now that Connie’s failures have fulfilled the rule of three, she goes to Eugene in a state of absolute misery. She thinks she has let Whit down by failing to step in and be him. Eugene points out that Whit didn’t want her to be him, but be like him. She’s a different person, so of course she can never handle things exactly he would, but only apply a sort of Whit-ish-ness to her regular behaviors. This is sort of vague, but it does help her. She ditches the sweater and gets back to work.

When Whit returns, he’s a bit puzzled. See, he left them a note. Remember the note? Yeah, apparently it contained both instructions on how to shut down the mirror if it started acting up, and mention that they might get a delivery of blue and ivory paint… both of which would be used for the shed out back.

Seriously. They forgot the note. The clearly written, placed in plain sight, right fucking there list. Because this is a Metaphor for Christians forgetting to read the Bible or something.

Sigh.

And now Chris’s summary begins. Now, she already talked for the first two minutes at the beginning of this. There was a skit with a professional impersonator who is actually pretty bad at imitating people, and it seemed to be setting up something. The actual episode was pretty short; there’s only 22 minutes to this episode, and Chris is going to take another two and a half to make her point. Hopefully, given that the whole episode has bent over to set up this talk, and that Chris’s parts are taking up roughly a fifth of the episode, I’d expect they have something really good in store.

After explicitly saying that Connie’s story is a parable, and giving several examples of parables in the Bible, Chris finally gets to the Official Moral.

“You see, a parable is simply a lesson wrapped up in a story. Whether Connie realized it or not, her adventure today was a parable about imitating Jesus.”

Okay, like most of AIO’s audience, I learned words like “parable” at approximately childbirth. There’s certain words that are key to an uber-Christian upbringing; parable, grace, lamb, heaven, hell, blood, sin… but I digress.

“Like the apostle Paul wrote in First Corinthians Eleven One, ‘Be imitators of me, just as I also imitate Christ.’ But imitating Jesus isn’t pretending to be him. It’s just like Connie learned today. Being Whit and being like Whit are two different things.”

This also seems fairly basic. But maybe you have some more particular applications?

“She wore a sweater like his and tried to talk like he did and even tried to fix things like he did. And she wound up making a mess. Whit didn’t mean to try to be him. He just wanted her to do the things he wanted her to do.”

Yes, I know. I was there. I heard the entire episode. What does that actually correspond to, in religious terms?

“Sometimes we make the same mistake when we read in the Bible to be like Jesus. We think we’re supposed to be identical copies of Jesus, and when we fail, we get discouraged.”

What do you mean by identical? Do you mean “as good and kind as?” Or “a carpenter’s son born of a virgin and crucified at 33?” Because one of those things you absolutely should aim to do, and the other one is literally impossible. Is there a third option I’m missing?

“But guess what? God didn’t make us to be identical copies of Jesus, or anyone else. He made us to be unique with different talents and personalities. And we are!”

Wait, first it sounded like this was going to be about being flawed, but now it sounds like it’s about being an individual. Could you clarify?

“In Philippians Chapter two verse five, it says, to have this mind in yourselves, which is like Christ Jesus. Or, have an attitude like Jesus did.”

Ok, still pretty vague, as everyone has their own idea of what Jesus’ attitude was and it tends to correspond pretty closely to their political beliefs.

“We can’t be Jesus, but we can be like Jesus, as we let God work through us and change us. Imitating Jesus is a lifelong process that happens as we study his word, the Bible. Kind of the same as the letter Whit left for Connie and Eugene.”

Again, I heard the episode.

“We also become more like Jesus through talking to him through prayer, just like Whit told Connie to call him if she had any questions.”

And you still have yet to explain what being “like Jesus” actually means. That is, beyond “not being him,” which I already had covered.

“And we can be like Jesus when we obey him, by doing the things he has taught us to do. In fact, there isn’t anything greater in this life for us to do than to learn to be like Jesus.”

Well, I’m glad we’ve got that established. Still don’t have the faintest idea what you think being like Jesus means, or why you think kids are genuinely confused about the difference between being something and being like something. But hey, at least you kept talking about this for two minutes and thirty seconds (seriously, I timed it).

Final ratings

Best Part: Mr. Barclay’s handling of the situation with Jimmy. He’s honestly a lovely character. I can’t wait for some of the Barclay family centric episodes. 

Worst Part: Given that I spent half this article ranting about it, I think it’s got to go to Chris’ neverending summary. 

Story Rating: This is another case where there’s the bones of a good story, but the execution is horribly shoddy. C-

Moral Rating: What even is the moral here? You know, if I was assigned to write a persuasive essay where I failed to even make it clear what I was arguing for, I would probably get a failing grade. So on that rationale, I’m actually going to give this an F. 

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The Other Woman

This is the conclusion of the mental health series, and I’ll give both my final ratings for this episode, and my ratings for the topic as a whole.

A bit of background for this episode; at one point in the series, Tom Reilly becomes mayor of Odyssey. He has been a city councilman for a while, but wasn’t interested in seeking a higher office until some circumstances forced his hand. Bart Rathbone, recurring villain, ran against him and lost, which had something to do with the fact that he is a greedy, selfish pathological liar and, frankly, hilariously incompetent. And if I was writing this a couple years ago I’d make some comment about how it was implausible that Bart would even be taken seriously as a candidate, but obviously I can’t do that now… is it 2020 yet?

Anyway, this episode opens with Tom announcing that he is still considering whether or not to run for re-election, and he indicates that he is leaning towards not. This excites Bart, who thinks he might have a chance to be elected this time around, so long as he’s fighting some lesser opponent. He urges his family to think of ways to discourage Tom from running, which leads his wife and son to follow Tom around town.

They catch him going to Hillingdale Haven, which seems to be a kind of hotel or club, and get pictures of him wandering the grounds, romantically entwined with a woman. This raises the question of Tom’s wife. She hasn’t been around for years, but as far as anybody knows she isn’t dead and they aren’t divorced. Bart’s son insists he has seen her once, and this woman isn’t her; she is blonde, and Tom’s wife definitely wasn’t.

They take pictures and bring them to a tabloid. The editor is thrilled, especially when they tell him where the photos were taken. Hillingdale isn’t any kind of resort. It’s a mental hospital.

Naturally, when the story breaks, it comes out that Tom isn’t cheating at all. Tom’s wife, Agnes, has a passion for hair dye, and every couple of months she’s trying out a new color. Her mental illness is, of course, the reason why nobody has seen her, especially while Tom was on the campaign trail. It’s also the reason why Tom has finally decided not to run for a second term. He’s tired of the scrutiny of mayoral life, and the job has kept him away from her far too often. He’s done with it. This announcement does not give the Rathbones the joy they expected. Instead, Bart, for once, feels ashamed of himself.

This episode, as you surely notice, is the only one that explicitly mentions mental health. In all others, I rely on either cases where someone is showing the symptoms of a mental illness, which is not named as such, or someone is going through a short-term reaction to a stressful event; the kind of reaction that is not a mental illness in context, but in which handling the situation is still a mental health question, if that distinction makes sense.

You also probably notice that this episode has almost nothing to do with Agnes. She’s a plot device used to create a false scandal; any innocuous explanation could substitute. I’ve almost left her out of my summary entirely.

But this episode does discuss mental health, albeit in something of a footnote. After Tom’s announcement, Whit and Eugene talk a bit more about Agnes’ condition. What puzzles Eugene is that he has never heard about her. He understands why her mental illness wasn’t public knowledge, but he has never heard it brought up in church (Eugene is a Christian at this point in the series). Whit explains that, when praying didn’t improve her condition, people stopped being comfortable with the discussion.

“At first they prayed for her healing, but she just didn’t get any better. It was awkward. Eventually people stopped asking Tom about it, and Tom stopped mentioning it.”

This is something I’ve wanted to see from AIO for a while: an admission that prayer and faith don’t always work. Every Christian knows about somebody who wasn’t healed by prayer, who wasn’t spared suffering because of their faith. It’s typically not talked about, because it raises questions they are uncomfortable with. And Whit, surprisingly, admits it. When Eugene asks for his thoughts on the answer to those questions, this is the best Whit can do.

“I think there are a lot of Christians who have a hard time dealing with things like unanswered prayer. We want God to heal in our timetable, and problems like mental illness make it even messier for us. We like happy endings. We want these people to get better and get on with their lives, like good Christians… Christians who can’t cope are like poor advertising. They’re embarrassing to us. It raises questions we find hard to answer, like where is God when we become mentally ill?”

Here’s where we get a bit iffier. He’s admitting that stigma exists, but he isn’t really discouraging it. He isn’t exactly encouraging it either; clearly he’s sympathetic towards Agnes and doesn’t seem to think the problem is with her faith, yet he falls into stigmatizing language anyway. He doesn’t say “Christians who have a medical condition,” but rather “Christians who can’t cope.” The phrase “get better and get on with their lives, like good Christians,” casts a complimentary image of people who don’t get better because they’re not good Christians. Even if he’s not supporting this image in all cases, he is indirectly indicating that those who suffer mental health problems are at least sometimes at fault.

When Eugene asks, Whit tries to answer his own question.

“It leaves us where we’ve always been, stuck with the frailty of our humanness. Dependent on the power of God’s will, and obliged to keep praying hard for the Mrs. Reillys of the world, and the Tom Reillys who help them.”

I want to like that answer, because it is doing something rare in AIO canon. Whit isn’t conjuring up some theologically contorted answer. He’s just saying, a bit indirectly, that he doesn’t know. I feel like I’ve been waiting for that since starting this project. And, honestly, I really like to reward people who have the guts to admit that. It’s not easy for anybody, but I think that so many situations would improve if we were all just a little more honest about the limits of our own understanding.

That said, there’s a couple things that stop me from giving full credit. The first is that he doesn’t say “help people like Tom and Agnes” or “work to destigmatize their situation so they don’t have to hide like this.” He just says “pray.” To be fair, I know many religious people who would take it as a given that if you pray and then fail to also do what you can, you might as well not have prayed. But I also have known many religious people who, having prayed, feel they’ve done enough and can move on with clear conscience. And most importantly, it makes the real takeaway of this episode feel less like, “accept that some people have mental health problems that don’t go away on our time table” and more like “accept that, and for goodness sake don’t let it cause you to question the power of prayer!”

I’d have liked it if they had tried to deal with this problem, rather than just point it out and then pat themselves on the back for noticing it.

Final ratings (for the episode)

Best Part: While her appearance is incredibly brief, the interaction between Agnes and Tom is sweet. They tease each other in an obviously still in love way. Also, I do love that what you see of Agnes isn’t her being stereotypically “crazy,” but rather you get a conversation fairly typical of any old married couple, with a few key lines that reveal her conditions. 

Worst Part: I suppose I’m most frustrated by the description of Agnes’ actual diagnosis. They describe it as a “deep depression” but then she mostly shows symptoms of mild dementia? I mean, it’s possible to have both, but this feels less like an attempt to add nuance and complexity to her symptoms and more like they were lazy. 

Story Rating: There’s a lot wrong here. First of all, the tone is horribly inconsistent. All the Rathbones are decidedly buffoonish villains, so naturally an episode with all three will be joke heavy. The scenes of them bickering as they try to follow Tom are pretty funny, but when Agnes Reilly’s mental health problems are revealed, the tone shifts awkwardly.

Then there’s the lack of clear stakes. The main thing at stake seems to be whether or not Tom will run for mayor. It’s hard to root for this when he is so clearly ambivalent to start out. We also know he has main character plot armor. If the writers really wanted him to run again, he would shrug this controversy right off. I suppose we are expected to feel that, since Tom is second only to Whit in his perfectness, we should just want him to be the Eternal Mayor For Life and be devastated at any course that doesn’t keep him in charge forever. 

…. yeah, for failing to put together the events in any compelling or aesthetically satisfying way, this gets a D.

Moral Rating: As I said, I’m not sure if the message is supposed to be “love and support the mentally ill and their caregivers,” which is good, but poorly executed, and I’d give a C+, or “don’t let the mentally ill good Christians out there shake your faith,” which I’d give a D for screwed up priorities, or just “don’t make assumptions and try to smear people with gossip,” which is solid, well illustrated even though the story itself is bleh, and I’d normally give it an A. I’ll split the difference: B-

Ratings for the Mental Health Topic

Best Episode: Letting Go

Worst Episode: Nothing to Fear

Good Things They Said: Support people who are struggling, accept that bad things will happen but face them anyway. Sometimes people of faith still have mental health problems. These all should be common sense, but unfortunately even misconceptions this basic are endemic to both religious and secular communities.

Bad Things They Said: Religion fixes all the things, most mental health problems are spiritual, and people who lack religion can’t cope with death or traumatic life events. All of these are not only inaccurate, but for Christians with mental health issues they can actively make their problems worse.

Things They Failed to Address: Actual, accurate descriptions of mental illnesses and disabilities, the role of conventional medicine. I don’t think this show has to be a PSA on mental health, but I do think that, if you’re going to broach the issue, you should research it as best you can. Furthermore, while conventional medicine is still in trial and error mode when it comes to mental health, it has also healed or at least alleviated the condition of many, many people. I’m not even going to say that this show, created for and by Christians, shouldn’t have promoted religion as a potential source of healing. I’m saying that an episode that, for example, promotes therapists and psychiatrists as a tool God provides for us would have been great.

Overall Rating: The bad messages are emphasized far more than the good ones, and sometimes directly oppose them. The things they fail to address are key to the topic as a whole. Because of this, I think the bad really outweighs the good here. D- 

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Where is Thy Sting?

This episode begins very shortly after the last one left off. Connie and her mother are going through Mildred’s things, and they discover a lovely music box that plays “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” is inscribed with “From Bill, First Timothy 6:17-19, in my prayers that you may find true treasure.”

Then they go pick up Connie’s father, Bill, at the airport. He is surly, but rather than rest up at a hotel, he wants to go straight to the funeral home and discuss arrangements. They meet with the funeral director, a local pastor and Mildred’s pastor from New York. As they talk, Connie says that she wants the funeral to be more than just a standard dour experience. She has been thinking about how hopeful Mildred was at the end, and how for Christians death isn’t an end, but a transition to a new and better life. She wants the funeral to focus more on celebrating that. Bill is furious.

“If you’re thinking that my mother’s funeral service is going to be some kind of a party, well then you’re on the wrong track.”

The others try to calm him down and suggest a balanced service, in which they talk about the sadness of her loss but also the hope she felt for a life afterwards, but Bill isn’t interested. He continues to mock Connie’s idea, accuses everyone else of ganging up on him, then storms out.

Now, usually I give a full summary and save my thoughts for the end. This is going to be one of the exceptions. There’s just too much to talk about here, and too much that changes from scene to scene, so I have to give my analysis as I go. Here, Bill is clearly being an asshole, and I don’t think his grief is an adequate excuse. Everyone else in that room is grieving too, with the possible exception of the funeral director. What’s more, all of them will need different things to help them through. That’s a pretty normal situation after someone dies. Connie shared the thing that is helping her through this, and how she would like to incorporate that into the funeral. But she didn’t demand it; she merely brought it up, which is what this meeting is for. Bill clearly needs something else, and doesn’t seem to know exactly what that is, which is rough. But his first response is to attack Connie, who is hurting just as much as he is. That’s only okay if you’re about five.

Afterwards, Connie talks the situation out with Jack and Eugene. It’s Eugene, of all people, who takes it upon himself to explain how Bill is probably feeling.

“Alas, take it from one who has explored many philosophies of life and death. If he considers death a void, then it may make him wonder if life itself is a void as well.”

This introduces us to the idea that, without God, there is no such thing as coping. They illustrate it with Bill, who is not only an atheist, but a nihilist. Contrary to popular belief among fundamentalists, most of the time those two don’t go together. I’m not going to say it’s never accurate, only that nihilism is not a sustainable ideology. We don’t do well with lacking meaning – it’s a human thing. To be a nihilist is to crave for a reason to be anything else. But that reason is not necessarily found in religion. I find it primarily in the people I love and the fight for social justice. I’ve known atheists who find it in a futurist’s utopian vision, an artist’s work, a family to care for, or a never-ending search for self-improvement. All of these things have value, here and now. It’s just a matter of discovering what speaks to you.

The idea of a nihilistic atheist being the norm is common. Fundamentalist Christians cling to it particularly hard, I think partly because they spend so much time putting down the worth of the world we have here. It is constantly compared to the value of the glorious, eternal afterlife. The present world is, at best, a pale facsimile, and at worst an active distraction. Switching mentalities from that to one where earthly love and human well-being is a perfectly valid reason to live and have hope is well, a bit awkward to pull off, even if you’re just switching your thinking temporarily to empathize with an unbeliever. I also think there’s a bit of confirm bias and survivor’s bias mixed in. Confirmation bias because fundamentalists want to see atheists this way, rather than consider that someone might be satisfied and happy without God, so they assume any happy atheist is lying. Survivor’s bias because the rare nihilistic atheists are the most likely to convert, and thus are the former atheists Christians are most familiar with.

This idea is impressed on the audience more when Connie’s mother talks to Bill, back at the house. She tries to reiterate Connie’s point about the balance of life and death, and the reward for believers.

“Well, that’s great, but if you believe the way Bill Kendall believes, you live and you die and the people you leave behind spend years trying to get over losing you.”

She also shows him the music box, and asks if he knows what the inscription means… kind of a weird question, given his clearly expressed disinterest in the Bible. He doesn’t know, he’s annoyed by the whole thing, and he goes for a “walk,” and isn’t seen until the viewing is almost over.

When he turns up, at the very end of the viewing, he is staggeringly drunk. He cries, snarks, and waxes poetic… if you expand the definition of poetry to slobbering doggerel.

“I am grieving the loss of my mother the only way I know how. You do it by having happy funerals and I do it by trying to forget.”

I have mixed feelings about this scene. On the one hand, I love how, despite his relentlessly dickish behavior, you are made to feel for Bill. He’s no simple villain. He’s a human being who is expressing his pain destructively, but you are made to feel his grief along with him nonetheless. On the other hand, it’s clear that the writers of AIO struggle to understand how a non-believer truly thinks and acts. Even for a nihilistic atheist, Bill’s statement is a little too on the nose, too perfectly aligned with where the writers are determined to take us.

Bill manages to behave through the funeral, and afterwards he goes up with Connie and her mother to view Mildred one last time. He reflects that the service was actually quite beautiful, contrary to his expectations. He also reveals that he and his second wife are getting a divorce. He feels like a failure on every level; he can’t keep his marriages together, he missed his mother’s final days because he was off on a cruise, and he can’t help making a mess of the mourning process, swinging his grief around like a club that keeps everyone at bay. Connie comes in with her solution. He needs to become a Christian. She emphasizes that the Bible verse on the box was an exhortation to pray for unbelievers, especially those obsessed with money and fancy living, and how it proves that Mildred wanted nothing more than for Bill to accept Christ. Bill reiterates that he can’t believe, and can’t forgive himself either. Connie tries again, and Bill runs off. Connie’s mother reflects that they probably won’t see him again, and how she’s realized that she has a choice between handling life the way Connie does or handling it the way Bill does, and it’s about time she became an official Christian.

I’ve already explained how bad that dichotomy is, so I’ll go into the other big problem with this scene. Based on my experience, there are two ways to deal constructively with someone acting like Bill; someone full of pain who is simultaneously incapable of caring for themselves and lashing out at others. First, you can put up some boundaries to protect yourself from their attacks, and focus on your own healing. Second, you can sit down with them, listen to them, let them vent while taking nothing they say personally, and hope that somewhere along the line you both figure out what they need. Both are valid choices. The latter can be noble and admirable, but when you can’t juggle your pain and theirs at the same time, which is typical, there’s no shame in the former. Better to successfully heal one person than try and fail to heal two.

What’s not okay is to insist on this being the moment the other person radically change their worldview, so they can grieve correctly and heal in the way you’ve decided they need to. Healing is complicated, beliefs are complicated, human development is complicated, and all of the above are incredibly personal. In the scene at the funeral, what Connie does is like trying to collect an insect with a sledgehammer. She is saying he can’t heal and grow unless he somehow acquires a belief in God. He doesn’t believe, and can’t will himself to accept it, because nobody can even at the best of times. Bill is too raw for her statements to do anything but drive him deeper into a feeling of hopelessness.

I do agree that, in the long run, Bill needs deep, transformative change in order to become a functioning adult. But Connie, at the end of this episode, expects him to convert entirely to her method of coping, and offers no other way to help him. In a way, she’s doing the same thing he did to her earlier in the episode. She goes about it in a nicer way, but she is still more hurtful than helpful, for exactly the same reason; she’s refusing to acknowledge that his pain needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

Final ratings

Best Part: When Jack and Eugene go to the funeral and are just their adorable selves. Which is to say, Jack quietly listens and hugs and makes everything feel a little warmer, and Eugene goes on a ramble about “the historical development of necrology and it’s impact on Etruscan archaeology…” and then remembers he’s at a funeral and apologizes a few thousand times. It’s sweet. 

Worst Part: It’s a tough call between the various lines that oversimplify the nature of unbelief, and how unbelievers can cope with death. The worst, I think, is actually Eugene’s. Eugene is a kind of intellectual jack of all trades, and at this point in the series he’s actually something of an agnostic. Eugene is probably my second favorite character after Connie, but all too often, AIO uses him as a legitimizing mouthpiece. He confidently asserts something that we are to assume is well founded, because A. he’s smart and B. he’s not a full-fledged believer so it’s also coming from an objective perspective. But of course, those statements are written without any actual research. His statements don’t follow his character or a coherent philosophy, but are simply what the writers want him to say, dressed up with the aide of a thesaurus.

Story Rating: Honestly, if I just look at the bare bones plot, without the ideas explicitly discussed, it’s a pretty good idea for a story. The central conflict is between two different methods of grieving; that’s interesting. The execution isn’t all bad either. Many of the scenes are well constructed and much of the dialog sounds like how actual humans talk. There’s still a bit that’s stilted, but overall… B – 

Moral Rating: “If you don’t believe in my exact religion, clearly you can’t cope with death and you’re doomed to misery forever.” D – 

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: A Touch of Healing

This episode takes place during a period where Whit was off in the Middle East, being a missionary adventurer archaeologist (no, I’m not making that up), and Whit’s End was run by his son Jason and his old friend Jack. This was actually a pretty good time. See, they couldn’t bring in a new character who would usurp Whit’s status as most perfectest human being, and instead they replaced him with two guys with good hearts and human flaws. Jason is proactive and inventive, eager to adapt new technology and trends to engage the kids at Whit’s End but often too hasty. Jack is more cautious and old fashioned. He needs Jason’s energy to keep up with the times, but he can also see where Jason is rushing in without considering all the potential drawbacks. As a result, formulaic answers delivered by a Mary Sue were replaced with actual debate and compromise, and room for the audience to think longer about an issue before deciding who they agreed with. It not only made the morals less trite, but also tended to force the episode quality up.

In this episode, Jason has developed a new program for the Imagination Station. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, which is astounding because it is a major part of the AIO canon; in brief, it puts kids into a world where they act out a story, programmed in by Whit or Jason, but brought to life “by the power of imagination.” It does actually seem to penetrate the mind directly, rather than just being a glorified virtual reality machine, which has some freaky ass implications. But I’ll have more opportunities to get into this later.

For now, Jason has realized that, since disabled kids can imagine they don’t have disabilities, he can program the Imagination Station to put them through an adventure, completely able bodied. Jack felt like there could be problems with this, but couldn’t offer anything beyond a vague bad feeling, and Jason more or less took that as a challenge. He went straight from idea to implementation to trying the program out on some Whit’s End regulars.

His first test case, Jenny, does not go as planned. Jenny was born blind. She can’t accurately imagine being sighted, and as she talks about it upon leaving the Imagination Station, it seems that she also doesn’t really see her blindness as a fault. It’s just a part of her, and she has a good life just the way she is. The second one, with Zachary, who became quadriplegic in a car accident, goes much better. He walks and runs, and what’s more, sees this as absolute heaven. This is, by the way, the same Zachary from Letting Go, but earlier. He was still adjusting in that episode, but here he’s positively raw from the double shock of losing his father and becoming disabled. As soon as he is pulled out of the program he becomes enraged and demands to be sent back. His mother, Eileen, who was not informed about what Jason was about to do, is furious. Jack takes Eileen’s side, but Jason can only think about how happy Zachary was during the program, and can’t understand their problem.

Meanwhile, Connie and her Mom are welcoming Connie’s paternal grandmother, Mildred into their home for the foreseeable future. Connie’s father, as you may recall, is largely absentee, and Mildred is dealing with some ongoing heart problems. It says a lot about Connie’s family life that she’s the one unanimously chosen as the best suited to take care of her grandmother. Mildred is sweet, warm and utterly delightful. Unfortunately, during her visit, her health takes a sudden and dramatic turn for the worst. She is admitted to the hospital, and when Connie visits, the two of them spend much of their time in prayer.

The next day, Jason finds out from Eileen that Zachary was a wreck after the Imagination Station. He threw tantrums and, when he finally went to bed, she found him crying in his sleep. He has also been refusing to go to physical therapy. PT apparently has the potential to help him, but it’s a slow, frustrating process for a kid who is already emotionally scarred. Zachary says that there’s no point anymore, since he can just go into the Imagination Station and walk like he could before. Eileen asks how Zachary is supposed to cope with reality when Jason has created a perfect fantasy for him to escape to. Jason, still wanting to defend his invention, thinks that maybe later on, Zachary’s experiences in the Imagination Station can help him be more motivated to go through therapy. Jack takes him aside and tries to show him how he’s undermining an already stressed out parent. He argues that it’s always been a policy of Whit’s End to never contradict parents when it comes to their kids. Jason doesn’t like that policy. I don’t either, but in this instance I’ve gotta take Jack’s side. He’s started messing around with Zachary’s healing process without even consulting his mother, and that’s seriously unacceptable.

The episode then cuts to Connie and Mildred in the hospital. By now, Mildred knows her own body pretty well, and she wants no more hopeful double talk from the doctors. She lists the problems, the transplants she would need to survive and her slim odds of getting them, and sums up her condition as terminal. The doctors are stunned, but admit she’s right. Mildred thanks them for their honesty, and Connie asks her why they have been praying if there’s no realistic hope.

Instead of saying they are praying for a miracle, Mildred says that the prayers aren’t for herself, but for Connie; for her to have strength, whatever happens next. A short time later, she slips into a coma.

Over the next several days, while Connie works to prepare herself for the worst, Whit’s End is mobbed by disabled kids. Jason sees that Zachary’s not alone in his reaction. These kids have a brief experience of cheap release, but they leave either angry, because they have to return to a reality that now feels doubly unfair, or disappointed, because like Jenny they lack the experiences that let the program work on them. For those who can use the program, they mostly went through the same kind of pain Zachary did. The Imagination Station makes them go from a world where they’re struggling to learn how to be different, to a world where everything is as it was before, and then are thrust back into the real world, with no coping mechanisms, no tools to adapt to the transition. He hasn’t invented a way to heal them, but a way to torture them. He suspends the program indefinitely, until he can figure out a way to make it genuinely work for the kids, and apologizes publicly for the damage he has done.

Jack goes to visit Connie and Zachary. The conversations he has with both of them are about turning to God for emotional healing, even when the physical healing we hope for doesn’t come. These talks are both very different from the ones Whit gives. Jack spends a lot more time listening. There’s no railroading them into a predetermined point, so you get the sense that he doesn’t come in with an agenda. He hears what the other person says, gives his honest response, and then listens to see what they made of it. You know, like an actual conversation. With Connie, they meander through faith, prayer, sin, pain and the afterlife. She doesn’t emerge with any new answers, but she feels heard and loved in a way she didn’t get in the previous review. With Zachary, there’s a “let me tell you about Jesus” talk, but it comes up naturally as a result of Jack sharing his philosophy on spiritual healing, and Zachary asking to hear more.

In the end, Eileen and Zachary both are converted. Mildred dies, but Connie finds comfort in her belief that they will see each other again in heaven.

It is clearly indicated that the official message is that God is a more powerful force for healing, particularly mental and spiritual healing, than medicine and technology. I don’t agree with that basic premise, in partly because I think the latter exist and the former don’t, and also because my experiences with mental health have shown the opposite. Religion tended to exacerbate the problem, modern medicine had very good results for me. At the same time, this topic is handled with unusual nuance in this episode, and that does make it better.

In this episode, characters who disagree with the official moral aren’t strawmen. They have reasons and are given the space to fully explain them, so even though they end up proved wrong, you can still think about circumstances under which they might have been right. If Jason had collaborated with physical therapists and parents, for example, he might have set up a more helpful program; perhaps one where it’s a reward for therapy, to make the results more tangible.

The other thing that works well here is that there’s something organic about how faith is used. Connie, Mildred and Jenny have a long personal history of faith, so it makes sense that they turn to it. As for the conversion, while I don’t like what Jack says (he calls people who don’t believe in Jesus “spiritually handicapped”) I do think he has a right to share his faith with those who are interested, and Eileen and Zachary don’t feel forced into an out of character religious experience for the sake of the story.

Science has brought us a long way, but there are many things they can only alleviate, or haven’t been able to solve at all. The history of science is also full of therapies that were tried and did not work, or have the potential to be applied in both helpful and abusive ways (think electroshock therapy or lobotomies). While meds have made a significant difference in my life, and therapy can help many others, for other people religion is genuinely a source of emotional healing, and that’s great. When it comes to mental health, I’m happy for anyone who finds something that works for them.

Of course, this episode avoids a big potential problem by only portraying characters who are happy to turn to Christianity for healing. I’ve already talked some about ways that religion can be counterproductive for people with mental health problems. In the next review, Connie’s father shows up for Mildred’s funeral, and we get to look at how AIO treats characters who are hurting, and unwilling to convert.

Final ratings

Best Part: Jack comforting Connie. It was so genuinely warm, and after Fences I was really ready for her to get talked to like a human being and not a troublesome project.

Worst Part: They keep referencing an earlier episode where Jason tried to invent an arcade game that taught kids about the Bible, and Jack was so shocked because, you know, video games. That episode, to AIO’s credit, did not force Jason to realize video games were evil; only that they were loud and needed to be put in a soundproof room so they don’t disrupt the rest of the shop. The writers almost seem to feel guilty about making that compromise, because now Jack keeps saying that they can’t be healthy, what with all the lights and noise and punching buttons.

Literally, he complains about the kids punching buttons. The whole time, I’m thinking, “you hear that your childhood BFF invented something that literally induces hallucinations in minors and you’re fine with this, but video games are bad because buttons???”

It was a minor point that didn’t detract too much from the overall episode, but it was still annoying.

Story Rating: The dialog was natural, and the conflicts progressed very naturally. At no point did the story feel like it was relying on contrivances or manipulation to make it’s point. I got genuinely invested in all the characters and how things were going to turn out. A

Moral Rating: I think the basic point is problematic, but of all the takes on this idea, they took the best one. C +