Tag Archives: christianity

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

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

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

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

Cause, you know, subtlety.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Ratings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I fuckin’ loved this episode.

Final Ratings

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

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

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

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

Final Ratings For The X Topic

Best Episode: Do, For a Change

Worst Episode: The Pushover

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The Pushover

One of my favorite shows is Arrested Development. It is, in brief, a comedy about a family of wealthy real estate tycoons who suddenly lose their good standing and fortune, and consistently fail to get it back because wacky hijinks. It also has more running gags in one episode than most comedies fit in five seasons.

One of these running gags is J. Walter Weatherman, a former employee with a prosthetic limb. Back when the main characters were all children, their father liked to teach lessons by rigging elaborate scenarios where the kids’ mistakes lead to a horrible “accident,” and J. Walter Weatherman pretends to lose his arm. Again.

J Walter Weatherman

These lessons are simultaneously effective and useless. The text of the lesson is absorbed. But one dramatic moment does not make for good character growth. It doesn’t teach underlying moral principles or good habits. It just scares them out of one specific bad habit. They don’t learn to be considerate, just assholes who leave notes.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I’m on the third of four episodes that summarize Adventures in Odyssey’s approach to self-improvement. The first two that I reviewed brought up some valid criticisms of mainstream methods to teach kids lessons. They have a decent grasp on certain things that don’t work, or don’t work as well as we sometimes wish they do. But now I’m going to talk about their favorite method to show a kid actually learning a lesson – Whit notices a character flaw and rigs a scenario where they see that the thing they are doing is Bad.

The episode opens with Cody, a new kid in Odyssey. To help him fit in, some kids are making him a super special sandwich for lunch. Ingredients already assembled include salami, mayonnaise, peanut butter and green beans. With donations from the large assembled crowd, they polish it off with banana peel, broccoli, liverwurst, and pickled pig’s feet.

Yeah, by “help fit in” they mean, “gang up on and pressure into doing embarrassing things.” And the sad thing is, he does it. With the group cheering him up, he takes a big bite out of the sandwich.

Well, they were clearly going for a mixture of “aww, poor kid” and “ew ew ew!”, so, mission accomplished.

Next, we meet Jared, who won’t let his friend Sarah play in the Bible Room, because “she’s doing it wrong.” Not sure how you play wrong, but apparently she was. They argue back and forth, until Whit separates them, and gives Jared a pretty solid lecture about how people need to make mistakes in order to explore and grow. Jared says he gets it, but he’s clearly just trying to get out of the conversation, as it takes about two and a half seconds for him to criticize another kid for carrying books wrong. Seriously.

Cody’s father comes by to pick him up. Cody is hanging out alone, looking at Bible maps. Cody’s father is worried that Cody doesn’t have friends and is willing to do anything for attention. He tells Whit the sandwich story, and about some other incidents. Cody’s character is fleshed out; he is generally a follower, not a leader, but he has never been this bad. He used to be able to use a modicum of common sense, instead of just going along with anything and anyone. Cody’s father asks Whit to keep an eye on him, and maybe help him make some better friends. Whit promises to do what he can.

So far, it’s a dang good episode. It’s funny, the characters are interesting, and Cody’s Dad has some great insights into what may be going on with Cody, and what might help him.

We get another scene of Cody being taken advantage of. The same kid who made him the sandwich has invited him to join a club, but part of the initiation is giving the founding members toys. Suuure, not suspicious at all, that. Cody delivers a remote controlled car and a baseball bat, and is rewarded with a time and an address. Which actually does lead him to a club meeting. It’s just that the club is a bunch of old ladies doing aerobics.

Worse, they decide he’s so cute, they start badgering him to join them, and because he can’t say no… Well, at least it’s healthier than a banana peel sandwich.

When Cody goes to Whit’s End that afternoon, every muscle in his body is burning. He walks in on Whit trying once again to talk to Jared about his bossiness. Seeing the bossiest kid in Odyssey next to the biggest pushover in Odyssey gives Whit an idea.

The next day, Cody and Jared meet at Whit’s End, and he gives them a job. He has some soda bottles for them to deliver to Tom Riley, and he will pay them for their help. Now, naturally Whit can get the bottles to Tom Riley any time. The real point is the map. Cody loves maps, and Jared has a notoriously bad sense of direction. So this task will force them to switch roles; Cody has to lead, and Jared has to follow.

Yeah, this doesn’t go well. Jared insists on taking the lead, and Cody caves quickly. They  take the wrong path out of the town and hit a dead end, but Jared insists on pressing forward through the brush. He runs into a barbed wire fence and scratches himself, but, determined to not be wrong, he decides the fence is a good sign. It must mark the beginning of Tom Riley’s farm. Cody makes some effort to stand up for himself, but Jared becomes all the more determined to prove himself right.

They wander on. It gets dark, and they start hearing things. Then a mysterious animal emerges and starts following them. They panic and run, and Jared trips in the dark and sprains his ankle, leaving them both helpless as the animal bears down on them.

It’s a sheep, which makes them both feel rather sheepish. It also makes Cody realize that they are not on Tom’s farm at all. Tom has apples and horses, not sheep. Cody carries Jared back to the edge of the farm, following the map. The fight has all gone out of Jared.

Whit finds them. He was expecting them to reach Tom long ago, and eventually realized Cody and Jared were in trouble. So he came out looking for them. As they are explaining the story he looks over the pair of them, and points out how Cody stood up for himself, and he is fine. An explicit parallel is drawn between him, the good kid who took the lead and was unhurt, and Jared, the bad kid who scratched his hand and sprained his ankle. This is supposed to be Cody’s big epiphany moment.

(EXPAND BELOW)

There are two things that really bug me here. First, Whit acts like Cody’s relative health is a natural consequence of his good decisions. It’s not. Cody could easily have cut himself on the fence or been the one who tripped. Or he could have easily gotten lost or hurt on his way back in the dark, after he made the right decision. The story contrived the outcome it wanted, and that’s shitty writing.

Second, Whit tries to act like he simultaneously expected that they would follow directions, and that this is how he knew it would turn out all along. Bull. Shit. Whit knew damn well Jared wouldn’t like listening to Cody give him directions, and he knew that Cody probably wouldn’t stand up for himself. He knew he was sending them into a pretty isolated area where they could easily get lost if they went off the map. What he didn’t know was that Cody would end unharmed. And for the record, I think he’s especially a dick for being fine with Jared being hurt. Jared is an ass, but he’s still a kid, and Whit is responsible for his safety.

Third is that, as I explained in the J. Walter Weatherman bit, epiphany moments don’t work in real life, especially when they are forced and manipulated. Sometimes they can lead to a renewed resolution to change, but real character growth takes time and practice.

But the episode actually seems to acknowledge this, as the final scene shows Cody’s Dad taking him to get his things back from the boy who took advantage of him. Cody’s Dad is in the car right outside for moral support, and Cody nearly throws up from the anxiety, but he gets his car and his bat back. His Dad says that, while he’s got a ways to go, he is making a good start.

What’s maddening about this episode is how easily it could have been great. When Cody’s Dad asks Whit for help, he specifically asks for Whit to help Cody make friends. There are definitely some recurring characters who could be convinced to hang out with Cody and not force-feed him gross sandwiches. I also think the basic concept of giving Cody responsibility and leadership opportunities is good. With friends and a few confidence boosts, Cody would probably go back to his old self; easygoing and cooperative, but without the desperation that makes him vulnerable to manipulation. But no, that was just too mundane and sensible. We’ve got to set up this whole underhanded Jeeves-and-Wooster routine.

Whit is not so different from the father from Arrested Development. Even when given all the tools to understand why a kid acts the way they do, he feels the need to resort to manipulation. I’ve already reviewed three other episodes where Whit uses deception and elaborate staging to contrive an epiphany moment. Every one has the same flaw; real humans don’t fucking work that way.

The next episode will come from AIO’s Whit-free era, and show a bit of a different take.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I liked Cody’s Dad a lot. He was involved but not intrusive, and willing to give support while also encouraging his kid to grow. He throws in enough snark to sound like a real person, but not so much as to sound unkind. I don’t blame him for giving the OK to Whit’s plan; we don’t know how Whit framed it. “I’d like to give your son and one of his friends an errand to run for me. I think it will help with his confidence,” sounds quite different from, “I’d like to send your weak-willed son into the woods unsupervised with a kid who is bossy to the point of borderline bullying, and this second kid also has terrible judgment. They will probably get lost, and I have no contingency plan for when that inevitably happens.”

Worst Part: Whit’s entire plan! Good god, this is not okay.

Story Rating: ….Ugh, I’m not sure. There are more good scenes than bad ones, but the payoff they lead up to is Whit’s plan and speech. It’s like eating a cake that is just coated in high quality, beautifully piped buttercream icing with fondant sculptures and caramel shards, but when you get to the cake itself, it is dry and utterly flavorless (why yes, I have been watching way too much Great British Bake Off. How did you guess?). You can heap well deserved, honest compliments on the good stuff, but in the end, the thing you were actually working up to is a disappointment. For that reason, I’m gonna have to give it a D.

Moral Rating: The explicit moral is that you should stand up for yourself when you know you’re in the right. I’m totally behind that. And there’s also some good illustration of how to actually grow and stand up for yourself, as well as the difference between being deceived and being gullible. In both cases, someone else is ultimately in the wrong, but it’s still worth being aware when you are choosing to override your own common sense.

But mixed in with all that good is the implicit assumption that it’s fine for adults to manipulate kids into learning lessons, and it’s fine to mildly endanger them, even if there was clearly a less awful approach available. I don’t think that ruined the message as much as it did the story, but I’m still going to dock points for it, because it’s a big problem. C-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Ratings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHH!

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

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

I’ve spent far too much time on this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Ratings

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

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

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

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

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Blind Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Final Ratings

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

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

Story Rating: Meh. C-

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

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The One About Trust

Sorry this was posted late. I decided at the last minute that, although this was a two part episode, there was really only enough material for one post. It took a little extra time to put the merge the two drafts I had together.

This is the last episode of the political series, and of course it had to be one of the two election stories. The first election story they did was about Tom Reilly’s bid for mayor against corrupt businessman Bart Rathbone, and honestly, it did not have that much to say about politics. It was just a lot of silly goofs. This episode, well, in its own way it also has very little to say about politics. But it pretends it does, and that’s the problem.

It begins with Connie finding out she is not going to graduate high school on schedule. Somehow, she has neglected to take a required government class, and it won’t be offered until the semester after she is due to graduate. The counselor offers her an alternative. As the election is going on, Connie can volunteer for one of the candidates, write a report on what happened, and they’ll call it square.

Connie jumps on the offer, but finds out there are two candidates, neither of which are her ideal. First is, once again, the token villain of the entire town, Bart Rathbone. Second is Margaret Faye, feminist.

Okay, there’s a fair bit more to her objections than that. Margaret Faye and Whit kinda-sorta used to date. They respected each other’s intelligence, but disagreed on almost every issue. Margaret liked having someone around who challenged her, and wanted to get serious. Whit instead chose to break it off, and she was pretty petty about it. I’ll probably get into that episode during the romance theme. Anyway, despite the bad blood between Margaret Faye and Whit, Connie still considers her less objectionable than Bart, so she starts working.

When she brings this up to Whit, he is initially flabbergasted. He can’t believe she is working for Margaret, and only concedes the decision when Connie spells out how bad the situation is, and how much worse working for Bart be. Throughout this episode, he will emphasize that he is not going to vote, because an intelligent, experienced woman whom he disagrees with and dislikes is just as bad as a corrupt, inexperienced and frankly dangerously incompetent nincompoop.

In case you’re wondering, yes, this episode was made by people who endorsed Trump in 2016.

Whit backs off eventually. He gives Connie her paycheck, but accidentally hands over Eugene’s. She offers to take it to him, but he insists on taking it back. It’s awkward. Then Eugene comes in, hears about Connie’s decision, and begs Whit to make her reconsider. It’s even more awkward. Then Bart comes in, seeking Whit’s endorsement, but when he finds out that Connie is volunteering for Margaret, he too tells Whit to tell her not to do it. Connie asks why everyone is talking about her instead of to her. Whit says she can make up her own mind, but he says this to Bart and Eugene instead of telling them to talk to Connie. It’s really, really fucking awkward.

At Connie’s first campaign meeting, Margaret asks if Whit sent her. Connie is angry at the suspicion and responds that she’s here for school credit. Margaret doesn’t like that as much as “I actually care and believe in what you stand for,” but it’s better than, “I’m spying for Whit.” She still isn’t sure about Connie’s relationship with Whit, though.

She wants to “shake up the status quo,” which everyone takes to mean tearing down the patriarchy. Part of Bart’s pitch to Whit is that she wants to tear down the “old boys’ network,” which means Whit and Tom Reilly and a few other guys. Whit says there is no such thing as an old boy’s network, by which I assume he means nobody is meeting in a dimly lit room to hatch conspiracies. But Tom and Whit have considerable clout around town; that is not up for debate. Apart from wanting to shake up that unquestioned power, we don’t learn anything about Margaret Faye’s plans for Odyssey. She wants things to change, because it’s time for a change, a changey kind of change, and the way she’ll make that happen is by changing things.

What a monster.

Going back to Connie and Whit, Margaret worries that Whit tends to think for her, and is not always fair. Connie protests at this. Margaret counters by asking about her and Eugene. Connie has worked at Whit’s End longer. She does the cleaning up and supervising kids. Eugene works on the computers and inventions, and is in charge when Whit isn’t around. Connie initially answers that those are the things Eugene is good at, and that he was hired for. Still, when she goes back to work at Whit’s End, she is bothered by the conversation. This is made worse when she sees Eugene with a cash bag. He is being sent to do the deposits. Connie asks why she isn’t given the deposit, and Eugene replies, “because you’re a girl.”

You know, Eugene and Connie famously bicker, and it’s usually presented as both people’s fault. And sometimes that’s right, but in doing these reviews, I’m noticing that, quite frequently, they are arguing because Eugene is a sexist jerk.

When she and Whit talk it over, Whit concedes to some sexism on the point of the deposits. Honestly, his response is pretty classy. He says that he tends to think of a young woman with a lot of money as a larger target than a young man with a lot of money. When it comes to the other things, it’s a mixture of Connie showing less interest and Eugene coming in motivated and qualified to do these things. But, now that Connie is showing interest in all this, he is happy to change things around. He’s going to start teaching her to work with the computers, and take on more responsibility.

I say this is classy because, in the real world, sexism is often unconscious. Anybody can go along with the status quo unconsciously, especially when raised in a more traditionally gendered generation. It’s how people act when their behavior is called out that tells you something about their character. Whit did not intentionally limit Connie and he is willing to change. Good for him.

And here I want to circle back to Margaret Faye. Her nebulous desire to shake things up is generally framed as a problem. But what would have happened if she hadn’t made Connie question the way things are? Connie would have been limited. Connie is a smart, spirited young woman who is constantly frustrated by the way people underestimate and overlook her. You don’t even have to go to other episodes to see this; Bart and Eugene’s conversation with Whit is a perfect illustration of how people talk about how to handle her rather than talk to her about what she thinks. She deserves to have her potential nurtured, especially by Whit, who genuinely does have an incredible amount of influence in her life. So, good on Margaret for pushing her to have that long overdue conversation.

Before I return to the episode, I need to point out one more problem, because it is about to become important. The disparity in Connie and Eugene’s duties would be a problem if they were both hired out of high school, at the same pay grade, for the same reasons. But they are in completely different positions. Eugene is in grad school, and specializes in computer science. He’s an adult, while Connie is still a minor. Eugene has a specialized skill set. Connie… is still a minor. This isn’t a feminist issue. I’d say Margaret is being a straw feminist, but, uh, nobody else brings that point up later. They just talk about how Connie isn’t great at computer stuff.

Meanwhile, at the bank, Eugene runs into Bart Rathbone’s wife, and they have a classic spilled-paper-collision-mixup. She ends up with Eugene’s paycheck stub. She nearly throws it away, but Bart wants to hang onto it. He has a suspicion, based on what he saw at Whit’s End earlier. They go back and dig through the trash, and find the paycheck stub Connie threw away.

Meanwhile, at Margaret Faye’s campaign, she asks Connie to look up on some information. Margaret says she has been contacted by a woman named Roxie McCormick, who once worked at Whit’s publishing organization. She says she was fired by Whit after trying to point out some of his discriminatory practices towards women. Connie finds the idea ridiculous, and Margaret says she doesn’t want to act on this information until she has verified it. Connie’s relationship with Whit gives her an opportunity to get an inside scoop, which is why Margaret went straight to her. That said, Margaret emphasizes that this is Connie’s choice. If she is not comfortable, she can turn the job down, and Margaret will completely understand, no hard feelings. She ends by repeating her advice, to Connie, to think for herself.

This scene is played with sinister background music, but honestly, Margaret is being completely reasonable. She’s taking steps to get all the facts before she acts, she is giving Connie the choice of whether to be involved in the investigation or not, and she is also taking the risk that, with Connie’s relationship, she might choose to cover up information rather than expose it. I suspect part of why Margaret chose her was that, if Connie of all people can bring back confirmation, despite her attachment to Whit, you know the intel is good.

Back at Whit’s End, Eugene warns Whit that Connie is in a bad mood. He talks about how she has been in a bad mood off and on for a while, such as on the day of the bank deposit. He thinks Margaret Faye is at the back of it, as she had just come from the campaign. Whit and Eugene piece together that this is why Connie has suddenly been complaining about her jobs and asking for tutoring on the computer. Their tone suggests that this explains sudden, irrational behavior; it was all Margaret’s fault! It’s not like the way Connie generally thinks and acts would suggest that she has aspirations beyond wiping tables, and Margaret just gave her the impetus to actually voice those in more explicit terms, and that impetus made her life better. Plus, nothing says “sexism free workplace environment” like two men talking about the mood swings of a woman who is trying to expand her skill set.

Connie has told Eugene about the accusations of Roxie McCormick, and Eugene passes these on to Whit. Whit explains that Roxie was actually fired for embezzling funds and there is plenty of documentation to prove it, including a police investigation. So, okay. There’s that subplot over and done with.

Whit is upset that Margaret told Connie this information, and instead of going to Connie, he goes straight to Margaret. He asks her, accusingly, why she sent Connie. Margaret explains, very calmly, that she didn’t send Connie, Connie accepted a request. When I say calmly, I should add that the voice actress adds a slightly imperious edge to Margaret Faye’s voice. Margaret has not, so far, done anything especially sinister, but the voice actress makes her sound like, well, a conniving bitch. Someone wily and adept at causing chaos while having plausible deniability. There’s a dissonance between the text of the episode and the framing, and it’s important to note that, because very often, when this kind of dissonance exists, the impressions of the framing are what stand out.

While he’s here, Margaret asks Whit if the accusations are true. Whit’s response is, “Not that it’s any of your business, but no, it isn’t.”

Sidenote; I think it actually is her business. This isn’t a personal relationship she is investigating, but the business practices of a large company which Whit happened to oversee. If a politician was running on curbing environmentally destructive business practices, and found out a local business did something highly dangerous, they would probably want that information to be let out so their constituents would know the legislation is necessary. That’s why Margaret tells Connie she wants the information. A major part of her platform, in fact the only one we know for sure, is that she wants to combat sexism. Establishing sexist practices of a powerful local businessman would show Odyssey why this is necessary. You can do the math.

Margaret takes his word, but Whit isn’t done. He presses her on why Connie was chosen. He won’t take, “because she works for you dumbass,” for an answer, and they get into Margaret’s belief that Connie needs to learn to think for herself. Whit’s response is to scoff at the suggestion that she doesn’t. He even accuses her of influencing her. Margaret laughs at that, and tells him that he’s been influencing her since she arrived in Odyssey. She says that what this is really about is Whit’s fear that anyone but him might have an influence on what Connie thinks.

God, it’s almost like she listens to the show. 

Just outside of the campaign headquarters, Bart ambushes Whit. He presents Whit with two paycheck stubs; Eugene’s and Connie’s. Whit pays Eugene three times more. Bart threatens to go public with this information unless Whit endorses him. Whit openly laughs at this threat. Obviously such proof of systemic sexism will flood the polls with voters for Margaret, and Bart will lose. There’s no way in hell Bart would do that. After spelling this out, Whit walks off, leaving Bart dumbfounded.

But the very next morning, this story is in all the papers, and Connie has quit Whit’s End.

Margaret Faye personally calls Whit to deny that she is the source of the leak. She also apologizes for the harm done and avoids talking to the press about it… okay, that’s weird and out of character. I think this is their attempt to make her character complicated and not a total villain. That attempt is itself weirdly telling. It would make more sense to complicate her by showing how, from her point of view, a crusade for women’s rights makes, you know, sense? Like it’s a valid thing to seek? But instead she sabotages her own quest, as a favor to a man who she frankly has mixed feelings about. Uh, okay then.

Election day comes and goes, Margaret wins, and Connie still won’t talk to Whit.

She will, however, talk to Tom Reilly, who tells her the real reason behind the paycheck discrepancy. See, back when she came to Odyssey, Whit set up a secret surprise trust fund for her college. Tom Reilly says he knows about the trust fund because, during Whit’s mission trip to the Middle East, Tom did the payroll. He emphasizes that Eugene and Connie are paid equally, when you factor in the bonus that she never sees because it goes immediately to her trust fund.

So Whit’s a good guy after all, because he set up a trust fund. Which Connie pays for. With a bonus she doesn’t know she’s getting. So she’s being paid more, even though she’s being paid less.

Wait, what? What? What?????

Let me break down why this is so absurd.

First, Whit is fucking loaded. This was established in Tales of Moderation and referenced in several others. He could have set up the entire trust fund out of his own pocket if he wanted, and that’s what anyone who actually cared about Connie would have done.

Second, not knowing that Whit is doing this, Connie and her Mom are probably already doing something to prepare for college expenses. What sacrifices are they making now that they don’t realize they don’t have to? People on the edge of poverty have to budget their money tightly and make a lot of sacrifices. Heck, maybe Connie’s Mom wants to go back to college, or take some self-improvement courses, and she’s holding off because her daughter’s education comes first. Surprises are nice, but it’s also nice to know that you can dip into your savings to get your roof fixed.

Third, is Eugene actually supposed to Connie’s equal or not? Because it doesn’t make sense that he would be. He’s older, more educated, and has a profitable specialized skill set. Oh, and he’s supporting himself while Connie still lives with her Mom. You know, cause she’s a minor.

Do the writers of this show think pay equity means that all male and female employees should be paid the same regardless of what they do? ‘Cause that’s not the issue. The computer guy gets more money. It’s fine. What’s not fine is that a lifetime of gendered expectations means women get discouraged from becoming the computer guy in the first place.

Oh, and when they get that training, they often encounter demonstrably hostile work environments, directly tied to their gender.

And then there’s still the expectation that they will eventually quit and stay home with their babies, because stay at home dads are stigmatized. And people use that expectation to justify paying all women less just for being female, cause all women secretly want babies even if they say they don’t so we can pretty much assume there will be babies, hormones amirite?

And women are also socialized to be more accommodating so they are less likely to negotiate for a raise.

And on top of all that some bosses are just straight up sexist assholes who actually do give women a pay cut just for being women, so that’s not good.

In conclusion, this episode’s contrived solution to a contrived problem actually makes Whit look worse than if he just paid the high schooler minimum wage, you know, cause she’s a minor.

Anyway, the music tells us, along with Tom’s flowery speech about Whit’s compassion for a poor divorced single mother and her kid, that our heartstrings are supposed to be pulled. Connie is driven to tears and runs to Whit. She reveals that she is the one who leaked the story! Oh what a twist! Oh my goodness! She’s such a horrible person who has been proved so very wrong and she should have trusted Whit oh the humanity! And just to hammer the point home, when she gets an A on her final report, she says she doesn’t deserve it because she “failed trust.”

Uuuuggggghhhh.

Final Ratings

Best Part: During his concession speech, Bart starts talking about reports of ballot stuffing, which he intends to investigate. Then someone whispers that it was his son, Rodney, who did the stuffing. Bart promptly shifts to advertising upcoming sales at the Electric Palace.

Worst Part: “I’m not paying you less! I’m just subtracting two thirds of your paycheck without telling you about it.” God, at least when the government takes some of your paycheck, it tells you how much and where it’s going. But it’s fine when a small business owner does it…

Story Rating: Starts strong with some interesting conflicts, but fizzles into contrived resolutions. D –

Moral Rating: This is my final review in the politics theme, and despite being set around a mayoral election, it barely talks about politics. It alludes to them, then throws contrived monkey wrenches into the conversation to make you feel bad for distrusting the Designated Authority Figure. And that’s, well, that’s really destructive. It doesn’t educate. It just programs distrust. F

Final Ratings For Political Topic

Best Episode: Viva La Difference

Worst Episode: ….literally all of the others?

Okay, most of them at least had stories that were interesting apart from the political ignorance, while this one was bad from a story perspective alone. So, The One About Trust wins. Er, loses. Whatever, you get what I’m saying.

Good Things They Said: Women and Black people aren’t actively subhuman.

Bad Things They Said: It is, however, completely normal and natural that they have less power than white men. Anyone trying to shake up a Pleasantville-style set of norms is probably evil.

Things They Failed to Address: Liberals sometimes have good ideas. Gay people exist.

Overall Rating: I don’t think this show should have to give a comprehensive political education. The complexities of fiscal policy is a bit beyond the scope of your average kids show. I would not have faulted this show if it had opted to be as apolitical as possible. But it doesn’t. It does specifically argue against feminist, anti-imperialist and socially progressive ideas, and it does so by consistently misrepresenting the positions they are arguing against, and framing liberal characters with sinister music.

I disagree with the politics of Focus on the Family, which produces Adventures in Odyssey. But that disagreement isn’t the problem here. I dig intelligent disagreement. I still enjoy C. S. Lewis for that reason. What pisses me off is that they emotionally bully kids into being afraid of liberals, without properly understanding liberal positions.

F, for Fuck that Shit.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Subject Yourself

*Deep breathe*

Okay, I think the best way to handle this is to describing the episode without criticism, to capture how I perceived it as a kid. Then I’ll go into what stood out to me as an adult.

It opens with Lawrence Hodges, eternal troublemaker, waiting at Whit’s End for his mother to pick him up. He is chatting with Jack Allen about his new braces. Unsurprisingly, he hates them. They’re uncomfortable, they stop him from eating half the food he likes, and he has to wear them for two years. Jack Allen encourages him to be patient and follow his orthodontist’s directions, but Lawrence is still moody.

Mrs. Hodges shows up. She was delayed by a meeting to go over the new history curriculum for next year, and she is not happy with it. She isn’t very specific, but one thing that bothers her is the absence of religion, outside of descriptions of indigenous beliefs. Jack Allen says he heard something on the news about “revisionist history,” which he defines as textbooks that try to downplay the role of Christianity in American heritage. He thought that only big cities like New York or Chicago were doing that kind of thing, not places like Odyssey. But apparently he’s wrong, and he’s dismayed that Mrs. Hodges will have to teach it.

Later, Mrs. Hodges goes to the principal to talk about the new curriculum. She shows him a list of problems. The principal did not remember there being any issues, but she says there were events that were left out, and more importantly, no discussion of the Christianity that laid the foundation of those events. When he asks if she is religious, she says yes, but emphasizes that this is not relevant to her problem. She gives Washington and Lincoln as examples of figures who you can’t discuss without also discussing their faith. They go on talking, and I’ll skim over what was said because, as I said, as a kid the details went over my head. I’ll get back into them later. What did stuck was the sense that this textbook was clearly trying to brainwash kids into thinking all Christians and white people were evil.

Tension builds when the principal brings up the potential repercussions of fighting the curriculum. He thinks the government will slash their budget. He mentions an after-school program for special needs children that she works with. It’s an example of the kind of thing they could have to cut if they lose funding. He urges her to not rock the boat.

Meanwhile, Jack Allen catches Lawrence with a huge bag of snacks and candy from the “don’t eat” list. Lawrence tries to justify his shopping trip, but his arguments boil down to “but I really like sticky candy.” He’s also been having a miserable time at home. He and his mother fight every night over the headgear that comes with his braces. He hates sleeping with it, almost as much as he hates the nightly cleaning routines. Jack listens and encourages him to follow the orthodontists’ rules, but also use his imagination to make the experience more bearable.

This gives Lawrence an idea. He asks his Mom if he can get his braces colored. She doesn’t have time to talk through scheduling and costs, as she is distracted by the problems she has found in the textbook. She does like the idea of coloring Lawrence’s braces, and reassures him that she will get to it, but right now is not a good time. Lawrence is not happy to hear this. Patience isn’t a strength of his.

Mrs. Hodges goes back to the principal. Some other teachers have shared similar concerns, and she asks the principal to take them to talk this decision over with the school board. He is reluctant, but when she threatens to go to the press, he caves. He, and the board, would prefer a private discussion over a public fury. The principal does warn Mrs. Hodges that if this does not go her way, it could ruin her entire career. Mrs. Hodges is prepared to take that risk.

While his mom goes to the meeting, Lawrence waits at Whit’s End once again. He gleefully shows off his new, technicolored braces. Which he colored himself. Yeah, he got tired of waiting for the appointment, which is a whole week away, so he just helped himself to some paint leftover from his roller derby kit. Although he does now feel a little queasy…

Jack facepalms and rushes Lawrence to the emergency room.

Mrs. Hodges presents her case to the board. She is asked whether this is just discomfort over being confronted with a perspective that is different from hers, and she says she is positive that is not the issue. As she explains it, being a teacher she is used to dealing with other points of view. This book simply takes it too far.

They go over the potential consequences to her career and the school’s budget. She acknowledges those risks, but insists that an accurate, balanced look at events is crucial to education, and this textbook is simply indoctrinating students. It also opens the door to further strongarming of teachers and ideological issues. She says she would rather resign than teach the curriculum. The board thanks her for her time, and then adjourns to discuss the issue.

Mrs. Hodges then gets the message to meet Jack and Lawrence at the hospital.

Lawrence was made to throw up the paint, and is doing fine now. Jack shakes his head over Lawrence’s impatience, and Lawrence is now a little more ready to work on that character flaw. Jack impresses on him that, more than just being patient, he also needs to listen to those in authority. Lawrence then brings up his mother and her little rebellion against the school board. Jack talks about the difference between standing up as a kid to people who have expertise that you don’t (like medical knowledge about healthy teeth), and standing up as an adult who has a responsibility to protest when she sees something that is wrong. It’s a pretty good speech, honestly.

A week later, Lawrence gets his teeth colored the right way, and he loves them. Mrs. Hodges also gets news from the school board. They decided to hold off on any changes in the curriculum until they have time to take a more careful look at the material.

Cue the happy music!

Okay, so as a kid I thought this was a pretty solid episode. I didn’t really know anything about history other than what my parents taught me, and I pretty much took it for granted that AIO could teach me no wrong, so I assumed the textbook was exactly as bad as she said it was. Then I listened to it again, with more information under my belt.

Revisionist history is not just about erasing Christianity, whatever Jack Allen says. It is any approach to history that challenges a dominant narrative. It’s not inherently good or inherently bad. Like all academia, it’s only as good as the evidence that supports it.

History is, as the cliche goes, written by the victors. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say they get a crack at the first draft. Every historian writes with a perspective that will inevitably color their narrative. Sometimes they do their best to stick to the facts despite their own biases. Other times they cherry pick the facts that best fit their own biases. Sometimes they actively make shit up. Western academia is built around the idea that if you constantly question and challenge your own ideas, then the truth will eventually triumph over the lies. Revisionist history is simply a natural part of this process.

As a kid, though, Jack Allen’s skewed definition made perfect sense to me. I was being homeschooled in part because my parents didn’t trust the government to not brainwash me with secularism and liberalism. A big part of my education was learning how important religion was to everything, especially history and the founding ideals of America.

As it turned out, much of what I was taught was wrong. I didn’t learn how Thomas Jefferson cut out parts of the Bible that he disagreed with, or how Benjamin Franklin was a deist, which by 1770s standards was nearly atheism. I taught that Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were devout men. I was not taught that Samuel Morse wanted to use his telegraph machine to spread anti-Catholic propaganda, Alexander Graham Bell was a racist, ableist eugenicist, and Thomas Edison was an all-around dick. Oh, and of course it was not reasonable to suggest that people like Washington or Jefferson used the Bible to justify keeping slaves. Religion got credit for the good, never the bad.

When she gives her speech to the board, Mrs. Hodges claims to have a seven page single spaced list of errors, which she has provided to the board. Obviously a half hour episode was not going to have time to show all of them, so we have to judge it on the basis of the issues she does bring up. I already described her first issue. She thinks the Founding Fathers and other figures cannot be understood without a discussion of their faith. Obviously, for some historical figures, she is right. On the other hand, many others were passively religious, or actively critical of religion. And sometimes religion was used to justify atrocities, like how Manifest Destiny was used to justify genocide of the Native Americans. I do agree that balance is important to understanding history, but I think our ideas of balance are very different.

For example, Mrs. Hodes doesn’t think this textbook isn’t particularly fair to white settlers. She says that they talk about the settler’s slaughter of Indians but not vice versa. That’s not a fair comparison. At most, I’d acknowledge that there were inevitably cases where white non-combatants were killed by Natives, because Native Americans are human beings and any large group of human beings contains a few shitty ones. But in terms of the scale, context and stakes, there is no fair analysis that makes white settlers anything but invading imperialists. The indigenous peoples were there first; that’s why they’re called indigenous. We attacked without provocation, we broke our own treaties and we corralled the survivors into shithole reservations. And if you still think their slaughter of us and our slaughter of them is comparable, ask yourself, how many of us are left? How many of them? Entire tribes were wiped out, entire languages lost. We committed genocide, and it’s our moral imperative to admit that.

Similarly, she talks about how unfair it is that Christian missionaries are described torturing Indians. Well, tough. That happened. She complains that there’s no mention of Aztec human sacrifice. I’m pretty sure kids will find out about that one through cultural osmosis, so chill out. Plus, this sounds like a US history textbook, and that was more South and Central America, so that’s not especially relevant. She even complains that it doesn’t even mention the pilgrims at Thanksgiving, which… ugh.

Okay, for those who don’t already know, the history we are taught as kids is extremely skewed. There was one Thanksgiving that kind of resembles the kindergarten play version, and a ton of others that were held specifically to celebrate. If you want to know more, here’s some links. Besides, even if the sweet holiday version were completely true, would it really be historically relevant? If the best moment in European/Indian relations you can think of is one reasonably pleasant dinner party, that tells you something right there.

The last problem she describes is that the textbook “makes it sound like religious leaders were responsible for slavery.” That’s an ambiguous phrase. Do they specifically paint a picture of bishops sitting in a dark room hatching a plan to enslave Africans? ‘Cause yeah, that would not be correct. But “responsible” can also mean responsible for allowing it to happen, or justifying it. Christian preachers absolutely did that. She also says they aren’t credited with abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. That’s a fair point.  There were religious leaders both condemning and defending slavery.

A few paragraphs ago, I put a pin into the whole concept of whether or not the real complexities of religion in the US would be in line with AIO’s philosophy or not. Not every Christian in American history preached Christianity exactly the way AIO does. Quakers, for example, were probably the most famously anti-slavery denomination, and they were vocal activists. AIO is a fan of original sin. Quakers talk instead about the inner light of God which inhabits everyone, and many Quakers do not believe conversion is necessary for salvation. They also value the Bible but do not consider it infallible or the final word. Unitarians, who frequently reject even the divinity of Christ, were also typically abolitionists. As we know from episodes like Bad  Company, AIO does not look kindly on this kind of liberal Christianity. Meanwhile, Southern Baptists, whose doctrines align far more closely with AIO, literally became Southern Baptists because their leadership refused to condemn slavery.

I can headcanon Mrs. Hodges as a person who understood all this, and whose ideal textbook would not only celebrate Christian heritage, but also criticize Christianity’s failings and celebrate the diversity of religious beliefs among those who had, on the whole, an influence for good. But it does not change the fact that in their own writings on history, AIO certainly does not reach for this balance. Their definition of Christianity is narrow, to the point of cutting out many modern Christians, let alone earlier religious movements. I’m also not saying all the AIO-style Christians defended slavery and all the hippie Christians attacked it, but there’s a general trend here.

Mrs. Hodges says that this is “what we accused the Nazis of doing.” But the problem wasn’t the act of revising, just as Hitler’s problem wasn’t the gift of eloquence and Communism’s problem wasn’t the idea of regulating businesses… oh wait, AIO’s staff probably thinks the last one was the problem. Well, moving on. The problem happened when they lied, and cut out everyone who disagreed with the lie. And AIO is portraying the cutting out of Mrs. Hodges as an attack on people who disagree. That’s not what is really happening. In our society, there is still back and forth over education and textbooks. Sometimes I agree with what goes in and sometimes I don’t. And, most tellingly, I don’t think anything that Mrs. Hodges complains about is a serious inaccuracy. In some cases they are overcorrecting, but even there, society has so much of the opposite perspective… kids are going to hear your side too, Mrs. Hodges.

And here we get into my real problem. She makes an argument, a very good argument, that there’s something suspicious about a textbook that constantly picks and chooses what to include and what not to. Well, that can apply to the whole of AIO. They constantly pick and choose pro-Christian perspectives. They constantly pick and choose pro-traditional gender role perspectives. They constantly pick and choose pro-white perspectives. And when society presents them with alternate perspectives, they pick the most extreme example and cry foul.

Final Ratings

Best Part: This time my favorite part wasn’t a single scene, but an element of Mrs. Hodges’ character. She isn’t an aggressive person. On the contrary, she is very sweet and easygoing. This episode gradually revealed an inner strength to her that was both surprising and realistic. They say “beware the nice ones” for a good reason. Often the people who are softest on the surface have the most strength inside.

Worst Part: Jack’s skewed, scaremongering description of revisionist history.

Story Rating: Truth is, in terms of basic plot structures, this is one of the better ones. While it’s a bit obvious where it is going, it is tense, it engages the reader, and it uses Lawrence’s subplot as a good tension reliever. Hey, I split up the moral and story ratings for a reason! B+

Moral Rating: As with so many of these political themes, I have to split the difference between the ostensible moral message, and the underlying political ideas. The basic idea that authority should be respected in some cases and challenged in others is dead on, and they introduce some ways to tell the difference that are reasonable and accessible to kids. That’s an incredibly important set of ideas. But underneath it, they try to whitewash the racial and cultural imperialism that has marred our country’s history for so long. That’s incredibly damaging. So what the hell should I give this?

Well, if I’m analyzing this episode in isolation, halfway between an A+ and an F- is a C. If I’m analyzing it in the context of other themes, I’d have to weight the F side and give it a D-. Do with that what you will.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Arizona Sunrise

(apologies for posting this so late in the day. It’s been a helluva week)

I’ve described some problematic race portrayals on Adventures in Odyssey. People of color are inevitably either submissive to or violent enemies of heroic white people. This series also whitewashes historical people of color, even when all characters should be Middle-Eastern Semitic peoples.

Among white people, there’s a tendency to describe racism as something exhibited by swastika tattooed skinheads and absolutely nobody else. This is especially a problem in right-wing religious GOP-loyal communities, but white liberals are hardly exempt from it. And, god, the deeper I get into this topic the more I feel like I’m not the right person to describe it. The whole problem starts with white people talking to other white people, who haven’t experienced racism, about what racism really is. We tend to soften up our descriptions in order to make each other feel comfortable, and conversations about oppression and bigotry shouldn’t be soft and comfy.

So this episode isn’t going to explain everything about racism in all it’s forms and why they are bad. You should be looking for blogs written by POC for that. I’m just going to explain where, on the great wheel of all the diverse types of racism, AIO fits in, because that will be important context for the next video.

And to demonstrate what AIO’s race problem is, there is no better episode than Arizona Sunrise.

This episode opens with a chance meeting between Jack Allen, a friend of Whit’s who has recently opened an antique shop in town, and Cody, a small child plagued by homework. He’s supposed to do a report on a famous person from the Old West, a task which is unsurmountable because, as he says, he doesn’t know any famous people.

As luck would have it, Jack was just researching the history of an antique saddle he received. It was the property of Reverend James Klinger, a circuit preacher who preached in the Arizona territory. He even still has the page with Klinger’s biography open in his computer, and he invites Cody to look it over and see if this would be a good candidate for his report.

The article starts by talking about the Apache wars coming to an end, and “resentment between white and Indian alike.”

Well, that’s, um, a highly colored characterization. We’ll put a pin in that for now.

We open on James Klinger reading the Bible to a group of Apaches, and talking about sin, death and redemption. He asks them if they are following. They all say they don’t, so he prepares to break it down for them. He first asks if an Apache would ever die for his enemy. One of them immediately responds that no, an Apache would kill their enemy. Lol, what charming savages. But don’t worry, we’re dodging that bullet with Klinger’s jovial admission that many white people would as well. All Apaches, many but not all white people, gosh, we are being fair minded here, aren’t we?

Klinger goes on to explain that sin makes us like God’s enemy, yet he chose to forgive us and even die to pay the price for our sins. The Apache find this bewildering but interesting. They say they’ll think over these ideas, and Klinger says that is all that he asks. He says good-bye to them and sets off with his companion/bodyguard/heterosexual life partner, Reese. Reese asks if he expects these savages to ever turn around, and Klinger laughs and says he has to try.

A rider comes up to drag them back to the fort, because the captain is outraged about something or other. Said captain yells at Klinger for a while about how horrible and savage Apaches are, and when Klinger again says that we are all heathens under the eyes of God, at some point or another. The captain agrees but repeats that no Apache has “the ability or inclination to change.”

This back and forth goes on for a while, which Klinger not exactly denying that Apaches are heathens or savages, just asserting that he has a calling to try his best, whatever they do. Here’s where I want to make a distinction between Klinger the character and the overall message of the episode. There’s a possible argument to be made that Klinger disagrees seriously with the captain’s characterization, and is simply choosing his battles. Or maybe you don’t agree with that reading of the character at all, and that while his intentions are good he also takes an infantilizing, paternalistic attitude towards the Apaches. It’s a brief episode, so you can read a lot into his motivations from scene to scene, and what you project probably has more to do with you and your experiences than anything else. What we do know is that this episode, having limited time, has made multiple characters bring up the message that salvation is needed by some white people and all Apaches. It’s pretty safe to assume this is a perspective the writers want us to take.

The captain seems to be trying to persuade Klinger that the Apache are not worth saving, and he even brings up the fact that Klinger’s mother was killed by Apaches. But when Klinger insists that this is his calling, and nothing will dissuade him, the captain suddenly tells him that Messia, an old chief, has gone out into the desert to die. It’s supposed to be an old custom of theirs.

I did try to find evidence for this ritual. I read through several online articles on Apache death rituals, and while there was certainly some variation between different tribes, I didn’t see anything like this described, especially in the sites curated by actual Native Americans.

Anyway, the captain’s information is out of character, because everything in the dialog up until now made it clear that he in no way wants Klinger to go preach to any Apaches. The captain thinks it’s a waste of time that aggravates tensions and makes it harder to keep the peace. But Klinger has only been more and more insistent that he will do anything he can to convert as many Apaches as he can. So the captain’s response is to tell him about someone who is A. about to die and B. clearly not into the Christian thing, as he’s still doing the “old Apache spiritual tradition” thing. Yeah, that’s real in character. This unnamed authority figure is definitely a fleshed out person, not a walking tool for exposition.

Anyway, Klinger announces that he’s going to go make conversion happen. Plus, if he can also save Messia’s life, bonus. But definitely the conversion thing, as the priority.

He and Reese first go to Messia’s old village, where most of the villagers want him to clear out and stop meddling. But Messia’s granddaughter, Nalicadaeh, comes up to ask about this whole Western medicine thing. Klinger has emphasized that his doctors may be able to save Messia’s life, and Nalicadaeh believes him. Messia’s her only family, so she can’t stand to lose him. The tribe threatens to cut her out if she helps Klinger, so she decides to convert on the spot.

If you listen to people who have had some experience being pressured to convert, or otherwise abandon their culture and home, it is always a painful experience, regardless of their reasons. But as Nalicadaeh talks to Klinger, she shows no sign of conflict or mourning over her decision. She talks excitedly about what her new God can help her do, and focuses on the search. You could, again, interpret her character many ways. This could be putting on a brave face or overcompensating so Klinger will believe in her conversion and help her. But either way, the episode is not giving any complexity to her situation. From Klinger’s perspective, she is both saved from eternal damnation, and might also get her grandfather back. The fact that she has also been separated from her home forever… we aren’t invited to think about that.

And there’s another character/story distinction of note. Klinger has no idea what is wrong with Messia. He probably doesn’t know how ignorant doctors of his era were, but he certainly does know that there are many diseases where the best they can do is make the patient comfortable, then wait and see. He also probably knows that most diseases of old age are in this category. The hope he offers Nalicadaeh is slim to illusory, and he knows it. But, again, from a character perspective, maybe it does come from genuine optimism.

The writers, on the other hand, know (or could easily find out) the state of medicine in 1887. It’s not good, especially when the patient was an elderly person. Antibiotics were a theoretical possibility discussed among the doctors who bought into this newfangled “germ theory of disease” notion. Surgeries were a last resort, because even if the infection didn’t get you, blood loss probably would. A few mad scientists were messing around, rather controversially, with transfusions, but they wouldn’t figure out how to do it safely until the early twentieth century. The point is, whatever Messia needs, from heart surgery, to a removed tumor, to a bacterial infection healed, even the most competent doctor of the era probably couldn’t pull it off.

Additionally, medicines weren’t regulated in 1887. You pretty much had two options; herbal remedies based on tradition and folklore, or “patent medicines,” which were cure-alls peddled by travelling con artists. Of the two, traditional herbal remedies were the better option, as they were given by someone who actually had to stick around and see what worked and what didn’t. Patent medicines were mostly just alcohol and promises.

This matters, because Klinger is about to be heroized for bringing an old man to Western medical doctors, when the reality is there was nothing Western doctors could do that couldn’t be done just as well by Apache healers. And the writers have no excuse not to know this.

Back to the episode. When they stop to rest, Klinger and Nalicadaeh share stories of families lost to the war. He lost his family to the Apache, she lost hers to white people. Oh, how tragic it is that both of these people came from warring sides, each of which were in a morally equivalent position.

Sigh.

Nalicadaeh does not want to stop. She wants to keep seeking Messia through the night, while Klinger and Reese insist that they make camp for the night. Their debate is interrupted by Pialsiney, an Apache scout from the fort who claims to have been sent by the captain. Apparently the Apaches are only keeping the peace while Messia lives, and so the captain has done an ideological about face, re: saving Indians. During this conversation, Nalicadaeh sneaks off, forcing them to continue the search for both her and her grandfather.

Nalicadaeh finds Messia and guides Reese, Klinger and Pialsiney to him. She says he is very sick and must be taken to a doctor quickly. Pialsiney immediately reveals that his story was a lie. Apparently Messia killed Pialsiney’s family, in revenge for their collaboration with the white men. Messia does not deny this, and even points out the war trophies he took from them. He wants to die, Pialsiney wants to kill him, this all works out. But this talk of war trophies draws Klinger’s eyes to a familiar necklace. Turns out, Messia is the one who killed Klinger’s mother. Dun dun duuuuuunnnnn!

Yeah, obviously this isn’t going to change Klinger’s mind. I should admit that the acting is good here. He really sells us on the difficulty behind Klinger’s decision to not take revenge, or allow Pialsiney to take it. But obviously this is the only way it was going to happen. There’s gotta be a message about God and forgiveness, and a dramatic display of self sacrifice that convinces Messia to convert. So Klinger physically shields Messia and gives a speech, and then Reese subdues Pialsiney and they all head back to the fort.

Also they see a sunrise, and that’s significant because Nalicadaeh had been afraid Messia would not live to see it, and there’s an episode title namedrop along with swelling dramatic music.

We cut back to Cody reading the article aloud, and he narrates that Messia survives for several more years and converts along with Nalicadaeh, and eventually many others in their village. Cody gets excited about this story and declares that he will definitely write it up for his history day project, because, as Jack Allen says, it’s so sad that we don’t hear more about how epic and wonderful missionaries were.

Now, I thought that this would be a hard episode, because I would have to do tons of research on the reality of James Klinger, and contrast the real person with the character. Uh… not so much.

Many listeners have written in to ask if the story of James Klinger in
Arizona Sunrise is a true one. In the episode, a circuit-riding minister
sets out to save the life and the soul of an old Apache warrior. Though the
characters in this episode were fictional, the story is based on an actual
historical event. Apaches did go out into the wilderness when they thought
it was their time to die. In 1905, a Lutheran pastor went searching for an
Apache chief who had done just that. He found the chief, brought him
back to civilization, and nursed him back to health.

Link here.

There is no information that would enable us to look the story up for ourselves. This, combined with the fact that I couldn’t find any reference to that as a custom, makes me distrust their source. There was a market for sensationalized stories about Native Americans for a very, very long time, a lot of nonsense got passed off as fact, and when it comes to indigenous cultures you have to trace your sources carefully.

This is also as good a time as any to mention that I could not even find evidence that Messia, Nalicadaeh or Pialsiney are actually names in any Native American language. Searching for either Nalicadaeh or Pialsiney just gave me two pages of Google results, all of which were references to this episode on AIO fan sites. Messia brought a lot of sites where somebody had misspelled Messiah.

So we see a fake story, framed as real to an impressionable audience, which misrepresents Western medicine as superior at a time when it really wasn’t. The hero is a man whose life mission is to convince Native Americans to abandon their beliefs and culture for his, while the writers have seemingly not bothered to do even the slightest research on what those beliefs actually were.

When I was growing up, I knew a lot of adults who agreed with a lot of racist stereotypes, from savage Indians to lazy Latinos to ignorant Black people, and they were always quick to clarify that it wasn’t the people, not the skin color or genetics, no, it was just the culture. Brown people could be just as good as white people, so long as they took on white culture. But people of color who acted, you know, non-white, those people were a problem.

And I’m upset to admit it, but as a little kid, I bought it, until I started reading books that actually celebrated non-white cultures. Not all of those books were good quality, and many came from the weirdly fetishistic liberal culture that put every non-European culture onto a pedestal of enlightenment. But they lead me to an important realization; I was being taught to judge other cultures without even being taught what those cultures were. Cultures are complicated as hell. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” culture; all cultures have good and bad aspects, because they are made up of complicated humans who themselves have good and bad aspects. And nobody is either free from or completely controlled by their culture. Offloading old stereotypes onto “cultural differences” isn’t an evolution beyond racism. It’s the same old bigotry, with a new hat on.

In my next episode, I’ll talk more about how this fits into the overall philosophy of Adventures in Odyssey.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: I kinda liked Nalicadaeh running off to make the guys follow her. Way to game the system, kiddo!

Worst Moment: Any of the bits where they go on about savage Apache ways could count, but Pialsiney has a bit where he specifies that he wants to kill Messia slowly with a knife, because that’s “the Apache way.” I really hate that the line that most condemns Apache culture comes from an actual Apache… it’s like they are trying to lend an extra veneer of authenticity.

Story Rating: I mean, it was entertaining, in a mindless, inaccurate, white man’s burden King Solomon’s Mines kind of way. Oh, and in an era where there weren’t nearly as many excuses for not doing your research. Plus you’ve got to make sure you don’t notice any of the plot holes, like the captain’s lack of a character, or the clumsy frame device. So, you know, C-

Moral Rating: So, with many of these political posts, I have to make a distinction between the implicit social message and the explicitly stated moral. Obviously the explicit message is about forgiveness and how it’s awesome, and I don’t want people to think I don’t approve of that part. I’m generally pro-forgiving, although when I get to the forgiveness section I’ll be pointing out some episodes where I think their ideas about forgiveness are weirdly skewed. But you know, when it comes to the decision to kill or not kill someone who once wronged you but is now a sickly old man who can no longer hurt you and who you think deserves a second chance, I’m all for it.

But there also is some proselytizing, from Jack and Chris, about how missionaries were awesome and epic and important to history and whatnot. I… well could say a lot. For now I’ll just say that I think, if they were so awesome and important, why the fuck didn’t you write an episode around a missionary who actually existed?

So, an A for “forgiveness is good,” a D for “missionaries are so epic and historically important that I can completely make up a story about a fake missionary doing fake epic things,” and an F for “brown people are okay, they just need to be saved.”

We’ll call that a D+, I guess.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 3

When last we left off, Judah was pestering Connie and making plans to ask her master (aka Eugene) about owning her body and entire life from now on marrying her.

Then they run into the Romans, and Judah insists on eavesdropping. Felix and Lucanus are expecting some kind of revolt, but have opposite views on how to handle it. Felix is spoiling for a fight. Lucanus is hoping to de-escalate any situation that arises. Once that has been re-established for the audience, Lucanus announces he’s sleeping in the courtyard, since there’s no inn. It’s not like he could commandeer any building he wants or anything.

Next comes a jarring cut to the sound of a baby crying, and Connie announcing to the men that Jesus has been born. Off-screen. Which, you know, is fine. It’s not like we were building up to that moment or anything.

Eugene and Connie have about ten seconds of back and forth. Connie is thrilled by what she just witnessed, and she’s just shouting about how Eugene should have been there. Eugene makes a point about how he couldn’t, old timey traditions say “no mensfolk allowed in the birthing chambers.”

This almost feels like they are trying to reward Connie for enduring all this sexism. This entire adventure has sucked for her, but at least she got to see one thing Eugene didn’t get to witness! It’s a pretty lousy compensation. It’s not like his absence somehow made it more special. I mean, I’ve certainly heard people arguing that sexism was fine because while women are dehumanized they are also idolized, and stuff like childbirth and menstruation gets to be all magical and inaccessible and those two things totally balance out…. wait, is that actually the point they are trying to make?

You know what, let’s put a pin in that. We are almost at the end.

Eugene goes to get Hezekiah. While waiting for him to return, Connie to accidentally runs into General Lucanus, who is pretty much playing creepster bingo. Interrupting her work and ignoring her protests? Check. Ignores multiple attempts to leave? Check. Says he’s been watching her? Takes her hands without her permission and talks about how soft and delicate they are? Asks if she wants to go to Rome, and then cuts immediately to “I’ll speak to your master about it” without giving her a chance to give a clear yes or no? Check check checkity check.

It’s like he knows the story is almost over and he is way behind Judah on the creepster scale.

Speaking of Judah, he pops out of nowhere and heroically announces that no, he’s not taking her to Rome! Because who needs all that “respect a woman’s choices” crap when you can just have two men fight over which choice she doesn’t get to make?

So Lucanus and Judah have a swordfight while Connie begs them to stop. They both ignore her. Lucanus easily beats Judah, then Connie knocks Lucanus out with a water pot. Judah, once again, is upset that she helped, and then decides to just kill Lucanus while he’s unconscious and helpless. Wow, my hero.

Connie won’t let him, proving once and for all that even if these guys gave a shit about her as a person, and even if they weren’t just simulations in a computer program, she would still be way too good for either of them.

Naturally, as Judah respects neither basic human ethics nor Connie’s point of view, she can’t just say “don’t do the bad thing” and let that be that. No no no, she’s more stalling him with an argument until some menfolks come along to actually stop it. Hey, you know who we haven’t seen for a while? Eugene and Hezekiah.

They come in, see her arguing with Judah and wrestle his sword away. Hezekiah and Judah rant politics vs religion at each other for a little while, without listening to what the other is saying. Then the Romans show up. Felix arrests Hezekiah and Eugene, assuming that being in the vicinity of an unconscious Roman means they are somehow guilty of something, while Judah runs off.

I’ve given this episode a lot of grief for inaccuracy, both historical and human, but they got one thing right. If a guy’s ego can’t handle a woman helping out, then, when you leave him to handle his own shit, he’ll be a total wuss.

Once the coast is clear, Judah returns and tells Connie that he’s running off. Again. In a more permanent sense this time. He asks her forgiveness for being stubborn. She adds immature and inconsiderate to the list, but does forgive him. See previous statement, re: her being way too good for him. But oh-uh, Felix once again shows up and arrests him.

Is it just me, or is this episode mostly just people showing up and disappearing and showing up again?

Well, now all the men are locked up and none of them have gotten to see baby Jesus. We don’t have time for a cool jailbreak, so instead Lucanus regains consciousness. He tells Felix that Judah isn’t to blame. He was attacked by a “wild-eyed revolutionary, but all I see here is a jealous boyfriend.” Wow, nice burn. You’re still a creepy-ass motherfucker. He tells Felix that Eugene and Hezekiah aren’t responsible either, and tells everyone to go to bed.

Later Judah retracts the proposal that Connie totally didn’t accept, because the feelings of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Dude, you’re not Humphrey Bogart, there’s no plane, and she did not come to you last night asking that you decide for all of us because everything is too complicated. You’re a loudmouthed wuss with no real plans except taking off, and she’s a woman who has repeatedly told you she’s not interested.

Also, in a battle of the two creepsters, you’re the non-imperialist of an appropriate age, yet you still managed to be the less likable character. Just, fuck off already.

Shepherds show up raving about angels, and after they’ve had their turn to fawn over the baby, Eugene, Connie and Hezekiah finally get to meet Jesus. I mean, Connie already has, but now she gets to do it with Eugene. And a random old guy. Hezekiah gushes over the baby, and Eugene starts crying. He ends the program, as he’s too choked up to continue.

Aaaand that’s it. That’s seriously where the story ends. Whit and Connie are all, “aw, Eugene got emotional? That’s so sweeeet,” and roll credits.

I’ve already said a lot about the three major issues with this story. Eugene’s character arc relies on him forgetting that this is all a simulation, and he’s canonically a computer scientist. The historical accuracy is overhyped, to say the least. And Connie spends most of the time being subjected to one kind of humiliation or another. Each of those things are problematic individually, but I’ve talked plenty about that during parts one and two. Now I want to look at how they all interact together, because even if they had been executed better, they are a very incongruous mix.

Good writers use thematic elements to link disparate elements together. Les Miserables, for example, follows a large cast of characters, many of whom never meet. It contains stories so complex that an entire revolution becomes a subplot and we are all cool with it. But every story element feels like it belongs, because of their thematic links. They all show characters who are powerless against systemic oppression, but able to alleviate each other’s pain with small acts of individual kindness. So what is the point of Back to Bethlehem?

Well, at the beginning, Eugene and Connie have a conflict. They trust Whit to resolve it with his computer program because he is so wise and all-knowing. That’s why the continued, if somewhat undeserved, insistence  The text of that conflict is that Eugene is skeptical of the Nativity story, while Connie views it through sappy eggnog tinted glasses. This is a narrative from a Christian perspective, so naturally Eugene needs his skepticism to be fixed, so he can eventually become religious and not burn for all eternity in hell, simply for expecting evidence. Okay, internally consistent if not something I can really approve of. Why does Connie need her perspective changed?

As I said last time, while I think Connie’s feminist leanings are awesome, I still am in favor of her learning a more complex understanding of women’s history. But I don’t think this episode showed that happening. She spent a lot of time being humiliated, dehumanized and harassed, and very little time appreciating her work. The only happy moment she really had was when she witnessed the birth of Jesus, and that was mostly offscreen. If we are assuming AIO is aiming to teach her what I thought she needed to learn, that was a very clumsy execution.

But there’s another way to look at this story. See, I’ve said over and over again that Connie was humiliated, but her reactions aren’t those of someone in real pain. She is experiencing days of isolation, but doesn’t act lonely. She is experiencing days of hard manual labor, but doesn’t act exhausted. She is experiencing sexual harassment, but doesn’t act scared.  She rants and grumbles, sure, but in a way that only someone mildly inconvenienced has energy to do.

Also, while the argument that started all this might have been about the realism of conventional nativity scenes, the subtext was about sexism. In the middle of some normal teasing, Eugene took offense at a comment that threatened his masculinity, and reacted by pretending she should, for some reason, follow old fashioned sexist norms.

Then, during one of her final scenes, she is overjoyed at witnessing a birth that men were barred from.

I think the real point of this was to tell Connie that things weren’t all that bad back in sexism times.

As to the writer’s actual intent, I don’t know. I don’t live in their minds. But I do know that, when talking to men, especially older men, experiences of sexism often get discounted. As a kid, I was often told that things used to be so much more unfair and nobody minded. The fact that people bothered to change things is, apparently, not proof enough that somebody minded. I also notice that, now that I’ve transitioned, simply being male is enough to make people take my experiences of female gender bias more believable. I tell men who routinely dismiss sexual harassment about what it was like to be scared to wander down the streets, and they pause. They are startled. They take me seriously, because I’m trans male. My point is, I don’t think it’s unfair to think that these writers might be writing this episode to show little girls how sexism really isn’t that bad, because it’s a mentality I encounter all the time, among both conservative and liberal men.

And even if that was not their intent, I think it is worth taking a bit of a death of the author stance here. When I listened to this episode, for the first time in years, I did not remember how sexist this episode was towards Connie. That is, each event individually felt familiar, but I was thinking, for the first time, “holy shitballs, Connie is being picked on for her gender in literally every scene.” Sometimes, I actually remembered finding the scenes of harassment funny, even though, when I was placed in Connie’s shoes in real life, I found it painful and dehumanizing.

I think that’s why we don’t get to see Jesus’ actual birth. We are watching and laughing at Connie, but we are feeling with Eugene. They are both protagonists, but Eugene is the locus of empathy. His feelings matter, and are (however inaccurately) developed. Hers don’t, and we get to laugh at them.

I’m featuring this as part of my politics theme, because it did the best job of showing how AIO treats gender issues, on the rare occasion that they are addressed even sort of explicitly.

Hardly anybody on this show breaks with gender norms in any way. Girls like shopping and makeup, women are either housewives or have an appropriately feminine job description. And to be honest, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Many women are like that, and if, as a writer, you prefer writing femme women, that’s cool. It also shows femme women as strong. Lisa from my prior episode was a great example. She’s both outspoken and a girly girl, and the episode shows how her gentle caregiving approach is not inherently less valuable than Nick’s manly confrontational one. I genuinely think stories like that are awesome.

But it does sometimes have female characters complain about sexism, and when that happens, those complaints are rarely taken seriously. They are instead used as setups for jokes at the female characters’ expense. Sexism passes without comment, while feminist characters are quietly humiliated.

This show rarely does anything as straightforward as argue against women’s issues. It just quietly normalizes sexism, so subtly you can’t even be sure how intentional it is.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: Eugene is worried that his name won’t fit in with the denizens of the Imagination Station. So he introduces himself as Eugenius. The more you think about it the funnier it gets.

Worst Moment: The one where you realized that Whit actually had think up a program where his teenaged employee gets not one but two virtual reality stalkers. I just hope there’s something to the program that stops General Lucanus from treating girls who are younger than her that way. The more you think about it, the creepier it gets.

Moral Rating: What was even the point!?!?! I mean, I guess I just spent several paragraphs speculating on the point, but even my best guess was equal parts shoddy and shitty. F

Story Rating: To be honest, if you took the adventure out of the Imagination Station, and made Eugene and Connie two regular travelers who happen to meet Mary and Joseph in ancient Bethlehem, this might be a pretty good story. But the Imagination Station sucks the drama out of every plot point. How does Hezekiah know that Jesus is the Messiah? Because he was programmed to. It’s the Imagination Station. Are Connie and Eugene going to find Mary and Joseph? Of course they are. That’s the point of the whole adventure. It’s the Imagination Station. Will either of Connie’s icky suitors win her over? Probably not, because both of these people will cease to exist once the program ends, because it’s the motherfreakin’ Imagination Station! D-