Movie Review: Charade

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Connellsville

There's a world outside Odyssey. Occasionally I'll review other all-ages entertainment to see how it stacks up to Adventures in Odyssey.

10

The recent blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens showed how to do genre bending in the most predictable, generic way possible; the 1963 classic Charade demonstrates genre bending at its very best. I assure you I haven’t fallen for the myth of the golden age (i.e. something is better because it is older). I’m not one of those people who say, “They don’t make movies like they used to.”

That Charade is forty-eight years old does not automatically make it a classic, but that it is still watched and enjoyed nearly half a century after it was first released is a testament to how great it is. We get the mistaken impression that all old movies were great because the ones we still watch today are great. According to IMDB, there were 2,191 movies released. The majority of those were mediocre and forgettable. Probably only a fraction of them are even available on DVD. The ones that were worth watching again and again and the ones that have survived. When looking for all-ages movies for the whole family to enjoy, the classics are a great resource to turn to.

After an animated title sequence (and here I will indulge in a little nostalgia) of the type they don’t make anymore, a gloved hand emerges from behind an umbrella. It is gripping a pistol and extends toward the camera as it steadily aims. Then water squirts from the tip and sprays Audrey Hepburn’s character, Reggie. A little boy is playing with a water gun. Right off the bat it is apparent there are more layers to Charade than your average spy film.

Charade Still Current New York Times film critic A. O. Scott said in a video review, “The movie’s either a thriller masquerading as a comedy or a comedy disguised as a thriller.” While Charade is at times a comedy, Bosley Crowther, the New York Times film critic in 1963, declared that it “has so many grisly touches in it and runs to violence so many times the people bringing their youngsters…may blanch in horror.” The violence will barely elicit a reaction from audiences today, but there is no mistaking Charade for a spy spoof. While it is a comedy, it is also a spy film.

Genres are about formulas and conventions. Genre bending is about subverting those formulas. Where your expecting spy-fi, the director injects some romantic comedy. Since most movies of a genre follow the same basic patterns, mixing two genres can make both feel fresh. Striking a balance between the two genres can be tricky. It’s like a carefully choreographed dance. Appropriately, the director, Stanley Donen, was a director of musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain; Charade was his attempt to transition into other genres.

It’s an understatement to say Charade is filled with plot twists. Beginning with them water gun psych out, it is a movie about deception. Cary Grant’s character changes his name at least four times. Each time Reggie uncovers one of his lies, he comes up with a new back story. The screenwriter, Peter Stone, advises to “write as through you’re showing it to people for the second time and being scrupulously fair with parceling out the information and clues.” In my spoiler policy, I state that knowing the twist (or, in this case, twists) should not lessen my enjoyment of a movie. Charade was crafted to stand up to multiple viewings.

Charade Still According to an essay by Bruce Eder for Criterion, what sets Charade apart from other sixties spy films is that its main character is a woman. This is something Hollywood still struggles with. Salt, released just last year, was considered groundbreaking for Angelina Jolie playing a role originally scripted for a man. I like the James Bond franchise, but I must admit both the books and movies are often sexist. I’ve considered writing a spy spoof of my own in which all male spies are sued for sexual harassment because of their James Bond-like behavior. They are all subsequently fired leaving an all-female intelligence community.

While Cary Grant co-stars, Charade is Audrey Hepburn’s movie. In his video review, A. O. Scott observes that Hepburn’s character relies on her intuition. “Audrey Hepburn follows her instincts and lets the facts fall where they may.” Her character has a masculine nickname: Reggie. In the TV series Pushing Daisies, Anna Friel’s character had the masculine nickname Chuck. Giving female characters nicknames like this is an easy way to express that the character is supposed to be quirky and off-beat. Reggie also shows attributes of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe the archetype of the quirky, youthful, girlish female character who exists to teach men how to embrace life.

At the time of filming, Cary Grant was fifty-nine, and Audrey Hepburn was thirty-four. Cary Grant was afraid the romantic subplot would make him look like a “dirty old man” because of his and Hepburn’s age difference. Because of this, the writer and director made Hepburn the aggressor in the relationship. Unlike James Bond who uses his machismo to woo the ladies, it is Hepburn who employs here sensuality to attract Grant. She is stunning and gives a wonderfully comic performance.

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Modern Scholarship:

Episode: 044: It Sure Seems Like It to Me
Originally Aired: September 17, 1988
From Album: Volume 0: The Lost Episodes

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N/A

The Lost Episodes liner notes includes the disclaimer:

“Honor Thy Parents,” “It Sure Seems Like It to Me,” and “Isaac the True Friend” were odd little episodes in which our usual hope of good writing, directing and acting fell a little short of our high standards, so we simply refused to include them in our albums. We include them here as interesting curiosities—and as a glimpse into the dynamic and pressures of creating a weekly radio series.

Since the producers of Adventures in Odyssey recognize that these episodes fail to meet the quality expected of Odyssey episodes, I’ve decided not to rate them. Instead I will let them stand as just that—“curiosities.” I will make a few short remarks about the episodes, but the reviews will be much shorter than my usual reviews.

You can add your own remarks in the comments. Do you disagree with the producers? Do you think this episode is worthy of inclusion in the regular Odyssey lineup? Tell us why.

Album 0 Cover A funny thing about the two “banished episodes” I’ve reviewed so far is that they both make Odyssey sound bigger than the rest of the series. According to “Honor Thy Parents,” there’s a mall in Odyssey. According to this episode, there is an amusement park called Fun City in Odyssey. If a mall automatically bumps you from small- to medium-sized, an amusement park must bump you to large or at least medium-large.

I can’t say with certainty because neither are mentioned in AIO: TOG, but it seems like “Back to School” and “It Sure Seems Like It to Me” may have been conceived as a single episode and when there proved to be too much material for a single episode, they split it up into back-to-back episodes. The problem is there wasn’t quite enough story for two whole episodes, and they ran out about midway through this one. A lot of time was spent repeating information we already learned in “Back to School.”

“It Sure Seems Like It to Me” was still fun though. If I was rating these episodes, I would probably rate it slightly higher than “Honor Thy Parents.”

Matthew's Rating: N/A (out of 10)
More info about 044: It Sure Seems Like It to Me:
Connellsville

There's a world outside Odyssey. Occasionally I'll review other all-ages entertainment to see how it stacks up to Adventures in Odyssey.

5

Cowboys & Aliens isn’t a great work of art. It’s not creatively groundbreaking. It doesn’t impart a deep philosophical message.

But then those aren’t the reasons you watch a movie called Cowboys & Aliens. Like Alien vs. Predator and Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus, you watch it to have a good time. And at that it succeeds. Based on the title alone, most ten-year-old boys will want to see it. It would make a great weekend DVD rental for a father and son. It is PG-13, but that is mostly for violence, and the violence is of the sci-fi/comic book variety. There is a smattering of bad language, so as with all movies, use your discretion as to whether it is appropriate for your child or not.

If a high-concept movie is a movie that can be described in a sentence or less, then Cowboys & Aliens is sky high. Just two words tell you everything you need to know about the movie: cowboys and aliens. While that is enough for a weekend diversion, it’s not enough to make it memorable or to make you want to revisit it over and over again. High concept, as in the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, can be artistically and critically valuable when the filmmaker invests more in the story than just an eye-catching premise. The filmmakers behind Cowboys & Aliens weren’t interested in anything beyond that two-word moniker.

Cowboys & Aliens Still Cowboys & Aliens is another example of mass-produced filmmaking. There are five credited screenwriters with a sixth receiving a “story by” credit. A half dozen other screenwriters were associated with the project at one time or another. With that many hands in the pot, any possible distinct creative voice has been buffed out. Director Jon Favreau is tasked with little more than assembling the story elements as they come down the conveyor belt.

Favreau is most well known for directing Iron Man. I feel the critical accolades Iron Man received when it came out were undeserved. It, like Cowboys & Aliens, was no more than a weekend diversion. It had no real depth or creativity. Favreau’s directing style as workmanlike. He’s a competent filmmaker, but he lacks the creative vision that makes truly great directors great. He demonstrates his tone deafness in this quote from an interview he did with Entertainment Weekly:

I think people’s first response on hearing the title, which is a play on words, is that it’s going to be a comedy. They’ve been disappointed in the past when people have played with the Western genre, and not stuck to what’s bad-ass about it. When they throw that out the window, and play a pastiche of it, they don’t feel like they’re getting what they want. What you want is the grizzled warrior on the parched plains, and you want to see this iconic figure, who almost magical emerges from mirage of the horizon.

The very thing a movie titled Cowboys & Aliens should have been is a comedy. By removing that element any life the movie might have had is deflated. I know it sounds like I didn’t like the movie, but I did. But if you asked me if I wanted to watch it again, I’d answer, “Nah, let’s watch Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark again.

043: Back to School Review

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Episode: 043: Back to School
Originally Aired: September 10, 1988
From Album: Volume 3: Heroes

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6.5

Friendship Album After the summer-themed episodes of album 2, the first episode of album 3 is appropriately titled “Back to School.” And Leslie is having a tough time back at school. Well, it seems like it to her.

Leslie (played by Azure Janosky who also plays Donna Barclay) has a tendency to exaggerate. She could be dismissed as a sitcom character, but if you think for a moment, you probably know people like her. I know I do.

But this isn’t an episode about stretching the truth. That’s actually the next episode, “It Sure Seems Like It to Me,” which also features Leslie. In fact, this episode and that one are the only two episodes in which she appears making her another of Odyssey’s semi-recurring characters. “It Sure Seems Like It to Me” doesn’t appear next on the album though. It’s not on this album at all! The producers didn’t feel the episode was up to their usual standards and so relegated it to the Lost Episodes album. I’ll break from the album order briefly to review it next just so both of my reviews of Leslie’s episodes are back-to-back. Like my review of “Honor Thy Parents” since even the producers recognize it fails to meet the quality expected of Odyssey episodes, it will be a short, un-scored review.

Leslie’s dishonesty introduces a new framing device: the unreliable narrator. Unreliable narrator is similar to telling a story. With telling a story, you take for granted that what you’re hearing accurately reflects the events being narrated. With an unreliable narrator, there is no such guarantee. The events get twisted, mangled, and augmented—even fantastical elements can be introduced. The point of the unreliable narrator framing device isn’t to reveal something about the events being narrated but to reveal something about the narrator herself. One of my favorite examples of this is How I Met Your Mother, a TV series that plays around with layering framing device upon framing device.

What this episode is about is friendship. And, appropriately for an episode that also emphasizes the importance of honesty, it is truthful about friendship. Much like Leslie “stretches the truth,” children’s entertainment isn’t necessarily dishonest, but it often sugarcoats reality. It tells kids that all of life will be rosy and that the person who’s their best friend now will still be their best friend ten years from now.

Relationships evolve over time. It’s a fact of life that you lose some friends. But then you’re always making new friends too. And, as the episode points out, there is one person who will always be your friend: Jesus. Yes, some friends are lifelong friends, but you will have many transient relationships over the course of your life. This episode never sugarcoats over these facts. Even though Leslie and Cindy appear amiable toward one another by the end of the episode, the episode never pretends that their relationship will ever be the same as it was before.

In a poignant exchange, Leslie’s insensitivity hurt her friend Ann:

Leslie: I lost my best friend today.
Ann: No, you didn’t. I’m right here.
Leslie: Not you. I mean my best friend, Cindy.
Ann: Oh.

The dejected way in which Ann says “oh” is heartwrenching. Writer Paul McCusker and director Phil Lollar (whose “The Tangled Web” had a similarly melancholy ending) choose not to make the episode bubbly and light, and it’s the better for it.

Matthew's Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)
More info about 043: Back to School:
Connellsville

There's a world outside Odyssey. Occasionally I'll review other all-ages entertainment to see how it stacks up to Adventures in Odyssey.

1

Hollywood likes sequels because they come with a guaranteed audience. It’s assumed all the people who liked the first one will show up for the second one. Hollywood likes adaptations nearly as much as sequels. If a lot of people bought a book, then, it is assumed, all those people will dutifully buy a ticket to the movie version of the book. As in the case of Harry Potter and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, sometimes that assumption pays off. In this case it didn’t. Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer had a budget of $20 million but only made $15 million.

It may be that Judy Moody doesn’t have as much name recognition as Harry Potter or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I hadn’t heard of the book series before. But there may be another reason why the latter two movies were so successful while Judy Moody bombed at the box office: The title characters are boys. This doesn’t mean boys are better than girls or even that movies with male leads are better than movies with female leads. It’s simply an economic fact that androcentric children’s movies do better at the box office. Whereas an eight-year-old girl usually has no problem watching a movie about a boy, an eight-year-old boy would likely throw a fit about being dragged to a movie with the name Judy in the title. Mom, Dad, son, and daughter may all go see Diary of a Wimpy Kid together, but Judy Moody is probably a Mom/daughter-only trip to the theatre.

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer Still It doesn’t help that it’s not very good. The storytelling is hyperactive, but the story itself is inert. The title character is the least bit likable. She’s selfish, egotistical, takes her family and friends for granted, and I’m not sure she bathes regularly. While this may be an accurate description of a third grader, the character shows no signs of growth. There’s no evidence by the end of the movie that she’s learned to be a better person.

The universe of Judy Moody is hyper-stylized. When we speak about the universe of a fictional work, it means something different than when we use the word universe to describe the stars and planets around us and the atoms that make them up. It’s a term that encompasses the setting and tone of the work as well as the “rules” of that universe such as whether magic is real or Santa Claus exists in that universe. Sometimes, like in Adventures in Odyssey, it is almost indistinguishable from the real world. Other times, like in The Lord of the Rings, it may be an entirely different world.

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer Still Some directors like Tim Burton are known for setting their movies in stylistic universes. The colors of Judy Moody are bright and bubbly. When someone turns their head, it makes a whooshing noise. The fashions and hairstyles are more Blondie than People magazine. For all its style, Judy Moody still looks generic. It doesn’t look too different from a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon sitcom.

The story is episodic. You have (1) Judy and her classmates searching for their teacher over the summer, (2) Judy and her friends trying to earn “thrill points,” (3) Judy’s aunt visiting for the summer, and (4) Judy’s brother’s and later (Judy’s) hunt for bigfoot. Any one of these four would have made a great premise for a movie, but in Judy Moody the disparate plot threads never intertwine into a coherent story. Judy’s aunt is introduced and then seemingly forgotten for large swaths of time. And the plot thread given the most screen time, the thrill points subplot, is the least interesting of the four.

Episode: 041: Return to the Bible Room
Originally Aired: August 27, 1988
From Album: Volume 2: Stormy Weather

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5

Evolution of Album 02 We have now reached the end of the second album. Odyssey is becoming more fleshed out and starting to feel like a real place. It no longer feels like this small town with a fascinating ice cream parlor blinks into existence, sticks around for thirty minutes, and then ceases to exist for another week. The characters have lives that continue even when the radio’s not on.

Part of that is the growing number of recurring characters. In addition to all the kids that blink in and out of existence over the course of a single episode, you now have the Barclays, and with this episode, Jack and Lucy. In broadcast order this is actually Jack and Lucy’s second episode. This is episode 41, but they also appeared in episode 29. That episode was held back until the third album for some reason though. Also, the episode title, “Return to the Bible Room” would appear to listeners following the albums to be a non sequitur since “Gotcha!” in which the Bible room debuted was omitted from the albums due to its inclusion of Officer Harley.

When I reviewed the episodes from this album, it was known by the name “Stormy Weather.” Focus on the Family is rereleasing this album next month. In addition to fresh artwork, they have retitled it “The Wildest Summer Ever.” While name changes like that make things more complicated for folks like me who are reviewing every episode, I think this particular name change was a shrewd marketing move. In my review of the first episode of the album, I explained the reasons why I thought this album is the second best-selling album. One of those reasons is that the majority of the episodes have a summer theme. That wasn’t reflected in the previous title and it is now.

Lucy is the longest-running kid character on Odyssey. She and Jack make a hilarious comic duo. Jack is constantly getting into “innocent trouble.” In this episode he’s exploring the Bible room. That sounds like an admirable activity until you learn he’s supposed to be helping with the clean-up day at church. The wonderful comic chemistry the two young actors demonstrated in this episode eventually bloomed into real-life romantic chemistry. The actors who portrayed Jack and Lucy are now married to one another.

Earlier on this album in “The Day Independence Came,” a boy interacts with a historical story. Here Jack and Lucy interact with a Bible story. Like the former historical episode, this biblical episode has a format very similar to the one Odyssey eventually perfects with the Imagination Station. Whit has them close their eyes and imagine they’re part of the story as he tells it. The device of inserting children into the story without the Imagination Station just didn’t work as well.

Matthew's Rating: 5 (out of 10)
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Movie Review: Monte Carlo

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Connellsville

There's a world outside Odyssey. Occasionally I'll review other all-ages entertainment to see how it stacks up to Adventures in Odyssey.

2

It’s a sad truth that most children’s movies are awful. When reviewing a particularly terrible children’s movie, a critic often dismisses, “I didn’t like it, but then it wasn’t meant for me.” Yes, it’s a cop-out, but there is truth to the disclaimer. While the rare gem like The Incredibles has proved that a movie meant for children can appeal to all ages, a person who hates romantic comedies isn’t in a position to judge whether the hot new romcom is good or not.

With that said, Monte Carlo wasn’t meant for me. It’s target audience is ten to fourteen year-old girls, so-called tweens. I am neither a tween nor a girl. Except for the most insipid scenes, I surprisingly found myself enjoying most of Monte Carlo. Saying a movie is an enjoyable movie is a far cry from saying it is a good movie. I enjoy a lot of movies I know are just popcorn flicks; likewise, sitting through some movies I know are classics can be a chore.

Different screenwriting manuals have differing guidelines, but most insist the inciting incident must come within the first fifteen pages. The inciting incident is the event that sets the story in motion. In Monte Carlo the inciting incident is Grace being mistaken for an English heiress. It doesn’t come until the twenty-five minute mark. One page of screenplay equal approximately one minute of screen time. This means the inciting incident of Monte Carlo doesn’t happen until page twenty-five. The story should’ve started with them boarding the plane to Paris or even once they were already in Paris. Everything before that point added nothing to the story.

Monte Carlo Still You may be wondering, How does this happen? The screenwriters may be incompetent, but it seems unlikely that professional screenwriters would be unaware of this rule. It’s probably detritus. No less than five writers (though only three get credited) had a hand in this script. It started as four middle-aged women pretending to be wealthy heiresses in hopes of snagging rich husbands. It became three Midwestern teachers who pose as wealthy women. Then some studio executive decided he wanted to attract the tween audience and had it rewritten yet again. It’s an example of mass-produced filmmaking. Entire plots are considered interchangeable. It’s inevitable bits that are no longer relevant from previous drafts are going to accumulate in a process like that.

As a general rule, action movies and dramas should be no longer than two hours, but comedies should generally come in under ninety minutes. At 109 minutes Monte Carlo drags. As I’ve already mentioned, much of the beginning could have been jettisoned. There are not one—but three (one for each girl—supposedly deep conversations with their respective mates that bring the entire plot to a grinding halt.

There is a simple test to determine whether a movie has a gender bias called the Bechdel test. To pass the test, a movie must (1) have at least two women in it (2) who talk to each other (3) about something other than a man. Most people’s reaction when they first hear this rule is that surely most movies pass it. However, when you actually pay attention to movies, you’ll be amazed by how many movies—even romantic comedies—that fail this test.

Monte Carlo Still Monte Carlo, of course, passes the Bechdel test. The three main characters are all female and do talk about subjects other than men, yet still an inordinate amount of screen time is spent trying to pair each with a man. Grace with French Hunk, her sister Meg with Australian Guy, and her best friend Emma with Dumbo. I don’t know why the writers felt compelled to place each of the main characters in a relationship with a boy. The movie should have been about their relationships with each other. Had the movie been about three guys touring Europe, would they still have all been in a relationship with the opposite sex before the end?

Considering the target audience for movie is ten to fourteen year-old girls, do we really want to be sending the message that dating men you hardly know that you’ve just met overseas is a good idea? Have you seen Taken? Meg’s dalliance with Australian Guy is especially troubling. When she leaves with him, it’s evening. When he drops her off, it’s morning. Are we to assume only PG-rated activities happened during that span? Further, she announces she and this guy will travel Europe unchaperoned for the remainder of the summer without her father’s express permission. As a twentysomething she’s an adult who can make her own decisions, but you must keep in mind the movie’s target audience is much younger.

There are two types of plot holes: (1) logical inconsistencies embedded deep within the plot that canot be fixed without restructuring the entire movie and (2) minor plot holes that could have been fixed with a single line. The latter bother me more because they show the screenwriter was lazy—or worse, didn’t care. There is a celebrity who looks identical to Grace, yet both her and her friends seem oblivious to it. People love comparing themselves to celebrities—even when the likeness is much more tenuous. We’re to believe none of Grace’s friends have ever spotted Cordelia on a tabloid cover at the supermarket and pointed it out to her? This could have been solved by inserting “hey, Grace, there’s that celebrity who looks like you” into the script.

Monte Carlo Poster Then there’s Dumbo, Emma’s boyfriend. He has seemingly little money and sleeps on benches once he reaches Paris but somehow has the money to catch a last-minute flight to Paris and chase his girlfriend around Europe. And I’m not as sold on him as the movie is. During the (unnecessarily long) first act, he freaks out because his girlfriend is taking a week-long vacation to Paris. It’s not like she’s spending a semester abroad. It’s one week! If he’s that insecure, Emma should have dumped him right there. And that’s not mentioning his disingenuous marriage proposal.

Renowned film critic Roger Ebert repeatedly complains about plots that only work if the characters are dumb—characters who could easily extricate themselves from the complication if they had even a modicum of common sense or intelligence. The whole necklace subplot reeks of stupidity. If the girls showed even an ounce of responsibility, this subplot would never have happened.

Selena Gomez is a talented young actress. I don’t know if it was bad direction or if she was just uncomfortable with her fake English accent, but she seemed uncomfortable in her dual roles. She doesn’t bring any of the snark she lends her Wizards of Waverly Place character Alex to bear in either of her characters here. Grace’s alter ego Cordelia offered her the opportunity to let loose and vamp it up, yet she seemed oddly constrained.

Monte Carlo seems desperately to want to be farce, yet the writers don’t seem to know how to pull off farce. Mistakes pile upon mistakes, but it all peters out before culminating in anything interesting. There are no consequences for any involved. The girls are deceitful, irresponsible, and negligent yet get off without so much as a warning. In real life there would have been serious repercussions and probably at least a little jail time. I admired happythankyoumoreplease for showing the consequences of its protagonist’s actions. A young black boy gets separated from his foster family, follows the protagonist home, and the protagonist allows him to stay with him indefinitely. Although he de facto adopts the boy, he de jure kidnaps the boy. As would happen in real life, the protagonist ends up in the backseat of a squad car. Unfortunately, Monte Carlo doesn’t have the guts to follow through like that.

Erasing Hell by Francis Chan

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In lieu of a new Odyssey review today, I offer you a review I wrote of Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell. I promise I’ll have a review of “Return to the Bible Room” (the last Volume 2 episode) up November 20.

Then November 23 I’ll have an all-ages movie review as a short diversion. We’ll start on Volume 3 on November 27.

A Recurring Theme

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While writing my review of “The Case of the Secret Room,” I found myself referencing “Lights Out at Whit’s End.” again. For being an episode that the producers attempted to bury, it sure pops up (at least around here) a lot.

I realized I was seeing a recurring theme in Adventures in Odyssey beginning to emerge. Odyssey encourages its audience to create. I decided to create a new page called Inventor’s Corner to chronicle when this theme pops up.

You can find a link to this page along with links to several other pages in the left column. I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss some of the pages you’ll find on At Whit’s End.

About Adventures in Odyssey, About At Whit’s End, and Odyssey Links. These are your standard pages explaining what Adventures in Odyssey is, what this site’s about, and where you can find out more about Odyssey. If you’re new to At Whit’s End, these pages would be a great place to start. If you don’t even know what Adventures in Odyssey is, check out About Adventures in Odyssey. Then buy an album and start reading my reviews. Trust me, you’re in for an adventure.

Matthew’s Glossary. The goal of all good criticism is to educate you on critical techniques and theories. Criticism that only informs you whether a specific episode is good or bad is worthless. Criticism should teach you how to tell if an episode is good or bad yourself. This ever-expanding page includes definitions to terms I use in my reviews. Some of them are technical terms from literary criticism and filmmaking, but most of them are just terms I’ve made up.

It’s All in How You Frame It. Another part of criticism is deconstructing how an episode is put together. Many episodes use a framing device. I catalog the various framing devices used on Odyssey on this page. I continually update this page as I come across additional examples and new framing devices.

The Many Hats of John Avery Whittaker. John Avery Whittaker is a true Renaissance man. The sheer number of things he knows and experiences he’s had have always fascinated me. This page is my attempt to list some of the occupations Whit has had. I’m sure this list is far from exhaustive, but I add new jobs to the list whenever I come across them.

Episode: 039-040: The Case of the Secret Room (Parts 1 and 2)
Originally Aired: August 13, 1988
From Album: Volume 2: Stormy Weather

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9

Album 02 Gold Cover In “The Last Great Adventure of Summer,” Odyssey experimented with the spy-fi genre. Here they experiment with another genre that was an old-time radio (OTR) staple: the mystery. Both experiments were resounding successes. Jacob Isom of The Odyssey Scoop called this episode one of his “favorite mystery episodes throughout the years.”

In its short time on the air so far, Odyssey has had only three other two-parters: “A Member of the Family,” “The Family Vacation,” and “Camp What-A-Nut.” In all three of those previous examples, part two was written and directed by the same person as part one. “The Case of the Secret Room” breaks from that. Part one is written and directed by Phil Lollar while part two is written and directed by Paul McCusker.

Two-parters should not be episodes with simply too much plot to stuff into a single episode. If there’s too much plot for a single episode, then it’s the wrong medium for that episode. If this were television, instead of making a sitcom episode, you should make a movie. At the same time, you shouldn’t make a two-parter if you don’t have enough plot for two episodes. Maybe you think making the story a two-parter will lend it gravitas or make it feel epic, but if there’s not enough plot, it will just feel thin. I see no reason this story needed two episodes. Everything easily could have fit into a single episode—and that episode probably would have been a 10.

I know it seems like I’m ragging a lot on an episode I gave a score of just one shy of perfect but one last complaint: The character of Jami was unnecessary. In my review of the very first episode of Odyssey I praised:

It is telling that the main character of Adventures in Odyssey is an elderly man. The main characters of most children’s entertainment are children. And if not children, then young adults. You rarely see the elderly as the main characters in children’s entertainment (a notable exception being Pixar’s Up).

Jami felt shoehorned in just to provide a child character to keep children’s interest. Whit is such a vibrant character that his sleuthing would have been interesting all on its own. The writers should have trusted in this great character’s ability to keep children’s interest.

This episode has it all. A secret room, a forty-year-old mystery, even buried treasure! And it has all the hallmarks of an OTR mystery. A rule of OTR mysteries is that the mystery is never as simple as it appears. The dame who walks into Sam Spade’s office asking him to help locate her long lost father usually turns out to be working for the mafia trying to trick Spade into hunting down an informant for them.

When the fully-dressed skeleton propped up in a chair found in the secret room is identified as Spencer Barfield, who was suspected of a bank robbery forty years ago, it appears he must have had a partner who shot him and made off with the money. But as fans of OTR know, appearances can be deceiving. Whit puts on his metaphorical deerstalker hat and sets out to find out what really happened.

Inspector Howards plays the role of the red herring, another OTR trademark. Like John Campbell’s excellent music in “Great Adventure,” the music does a wonderful job of evoking classic OTR mysteries shows.

My favorite scene in “Secret Room” will probably surprise you. It’s not the discovery of the titular secret room—but instead, right before that. In brief, (a) Whit is working on an invention, (b) he drops a transistor that rolls under a cabinet, and then (c) Whit and Tom move the cabinet revealing a secret room. Obviously, the writers have to get to (c) to get the plot moving. Because of that, (b) appears to be the least important of the three—just a way to get from (a) to (c).

A MacGuffin is a filmmaking term for a plot element that exists solely to drive the plot forward. What the MacGuffin is is unimportant as long as it moves the plot along. A surface analysis of the above scene would probably say the transistor in (b) is the MacGuffin. It exists solely to get the cabinet moved. It could have been a marble. All that matters is that it gets the cabinet moved.

Transistor I propose (b) is not the MacGuffin. Instead, (a) is the MacGuffin. Whit is making a microwave oven freezer or some such device. Fact is it doesn’t matter. It’s a MacGuffin. On the other hand, I submit that the transistor being a transistor is significant. A marble just wouldn’t have done the job. The transistor is more than just a device to get the cabinet moved.

In my review of “Lights Out at Whit’s End,” I described my imaginary layout of Whit’s End. In the inventor’s corner are Arduino microcontrollers, LEDs, electric motors, and, yes, transistors. The important thing about those things is that they’re all easy enough for a twelve year old to get her hands on. More importantly, they’re all within the price range of the average twelve year old’s allownce. I just did a quick search on RadioShack’s website, and you can get a transistor for $1.19. The significance of the runaway transistor is that you, using parts available at the local hobby shop, can be an inventor too. Odyssey does more than encourage its audience to listen; it encourages you to create.

Later at the library with Jami, Whit asks, “Do you have a library card?” She replies she doesn’t. Whit gently admonishes, “You should get one. Everybody should have a library card.” I couldn’t agree more. I love to read. Plus, you aren’t going to know what to do with those transistors and microcontrollers if you don’t crack a book.

Matthew's Rating: 9 (out of 10)
More info about 039-040: The Case of the Secret Room (Parts 1 and 2):

Movie Review: Courageous

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Connellsville

There's a world outside Odyssey. Occasionally I'll review other all-ages entertainment to see how it stacks up to Adventures in Odyssey.

5

The Kendrick brothers (the Christian Coen brothers?) have discovered how to effectively tap into a niche market. That niche market is the Church—or, to be specific, the Protestant, evangelical church. Their previous two films, Facing the Giants and Fireproof, grossed $10 million and $33 million, respectively. Impressive for two films with budgets well under a million dollars—combined.

As of November 1, 2011, Courageous has already grossed $28 million with a budget of just $2 million. The production budget isn’t the whole story though. It had an advertising budget of $9 million—over four times (!) its production budget. And most of that money probably went to advertising to churches who, in turn, bussed parishioners to the theatre opening day. So, is it any good, or was it just marketed well?

If asked to summarize Courageous, I would describe it as Promise Keepers: The Movie. It taps into the zeitgeist. Three network sitcoms about reclaiming manhood, How to Be a Gentleman, Last Man Standing, and Man Up! debuted this season (all, of course, from a secular perspective).

Some critics think the Kendricks are spot on with their message. Fatherlessness is an epidemic, and good Christian men need to stand up and be the fathers God called them to be. Steven D. Greydanus, my favorite film critic, writing for Christianity Today wrote:

All kinds of sociological factors contribute to the decline in fatherhood, but the makers of Courageous aren’t interested in blaming society. They want to address a clarion call to fathers—to husbands, to men—to buck the trend, to make a heroic commitment, in the teeth of an apathetic or hostile society, to do what is right, loving, and honorable by their children and their children’s mothers.

But he points out, “[A] crucial relationship plays no real role in the film: Where are the grownups’ own fathers?” He asks, “Why not show rather than tell how the legacy of one generation affects the next? More pointedly, isn’t how we relate to our aging parents part of how we teach our own children about honoring father and mother?”

Courageous Still Some critics (both Christian and secular) criticized the message of the film for marginalizing women. David Bruce, in his video review for Hollywood Jesus, said he felt the only weakness of the movie was that daughters seemed irrelevant in the pledge. Nathan Rabin of the A.V. Club calls the movie “predictably patriarchal” and writes, “Courageous pays lip service to the importance of mothers, but doesn’t have much use for women, except when they gaze admiringly at the men they love while those men fully embrace their roles as household spiritual leaders.”

Just because the wives and daughters have less screen time than the men in Courageous doesn’t mean the Kendricks view women as irrelevant. The movie is already over two hours long. I’m sure there are many themes they would have liked to include, but their main theme was fatherhood. All of the Bible’s teaching pertaining to the family cannot be included in a single movie. With Fireproof and now Courageous, the Kendricks seem to be building a series of movies that could. Courageous is the thematic sequel of Fireproof. Where Fireproof was about marriage, Courageous is about fatherhood. The protagonists in Fireproof are firemen; fire could be a metaphor for the passion in marriage. The protagonists in Courageous are policemen; police serve and protect just as fathers should serve and protect their family. But getting the message right isn’t the same as making a good movie.

Christian and secular critics alike seem to be united that Courageous is an improvement over Fireproof. Greydanus calls it a “step forward” and “their most ambitious and watchable film to date.” Joe Leydon for Variety says it is “easily the most polished production so far from brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, the prolific and increasingly accomplished filmmaking pastors.”

I’m not convinced that Courageous is an improvement over Fireproof—at least not that great of one. Greydanus also wrote, “[T]heir films aspire to the condition of Hollywood genre pictures, and while they’re not there yet, they’re moving in the right direction.” I felt the same way about Fireproof; I just wish that would have moved further in that direction with Courageous. Megan Basham of World magazine assessed the movie as following:

Christian audiences—starved for anything that speaks to them on a spiritual level—will continue to support Sherwood Baptist films for those elements that work while charitably overlooking those that don’t. But what a gift it would be to those same audiences, as well as to viewers who aren’t as likely to forgive shortcomings for the sake of message, for the Kendricks to build on their God-given talents and make a movie of such quality it requires no caveats.

Courageous Still To answer the question “Is is any good?”, I would borrow a phrase from earlier in Basham’s review, “good if deeply flawed,” and certainly not great. What is preventing it from from going from “good if deeply flawed” to merely good or even great?

The consensus of both secular and Christian critics seems to be lack of subtlety. Greydanus exhorted, “A lighter touch would have been more effective—more like a movie and less like a sermon illustration, or more precisely a church-produced drama.” Nick Schager wrote in the Village Voice, “”Courageous endlessly expounds on the importance of God in men’s lives but fails to answer the more pressing question of why religious sagas such as this treat subtlety as a sin” (emphasis added). In a section subtitled “Story subtleties,” E. Stephen Burnett expounds in an article on Speculative Faith, “As you practice better Story craft, consider trusting the power of Story. Trust it to do what it does best, without dragging seemingly federally required Churchy Content into it.”

What I don’t understand is when did subtlety become a virtue? When did subtlety become an attribute with which we judge art? That painting would be a better painting if the colors were more subtle. I would like that poem better if the rhymes were more subtle. Transformers wouldn’t have been such an awful movie if the robot-on-robot violence had been more subtle. I don’t think subtlety is Courageous’ problem; I think it’s more mundane than that. Courageous is afflicted with the same issues that afflict all movies—both Christian and secular.

For one, Courageous is far too long. I think many of the flaws that made it “good if deeply flawed” would have been eliminated had it been edited to under two hours. My general rule for movies over two hours (with rare exceptions such as The Lord of the Rings) is that a good over-two-hour movie would have probably been a great under-two-hour movie. The filmmakers would have been forced to cut all the average and subpar scenes leaving only the truly great scenes.

Courageous Still Greydanus thinks Courageous manages to be “watchable” despite “the tendency toward didactic, schematic storytelling.” There is nothing wrong with didactic storytelling. Bias against didacticism in narrative is a holdover of modernism. Both Fireproof and Courageous are postmodern movies. The The Love Dare book from the former and The Resolution book from the latter are a tangible extensions of the movies. In fact, the latter is available in two variations: The Resolution for Men and The Resolution for Women (re: discussion of the role of women in Courageous above, what the Kendricks did not have time for on screen they did expound on in text). This is not just merchandising like toys based on superhero movies. It is not unlike the graphic novel prologue Richard Kelly penned for his (also deeply flawed) movie Southland Tales.

If a movie is going to change hearts, you must be willing to think outside the screen. You must be willing to go beyond the traditional bounds of narrative. But if the movie is going to change hearts, it must also be good. Courageous could be much better, and for that, it can be criticized. But it should not be criticized for lack of subtlety.

More info about Courageous:

Christian:

Secular:

Episode: 042: The Last Great Adventure of Summer
Originally Aired: September 3, 1988
From Album: Volume 2: Stormy Weather

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8

Rooftop Escape “The Last Great Adventure of Summer” is a milestone for Odyssey. Not a milestone in the same way “Connie Comes to Town,” which introduced Connie, “Connie,” which introduced Eugene and in which Connie got saved, and “The Imagination Station,” which introduced the Imagination Station, were milestones. But a milestone nonetheless.

“Great Adventure” marked a radical departure in terms of tone and genre from what Odyssey had done before. For the first forty episodes or so (I’ll get to the episode number issue in a moment), Adventures in Odyssey had been a small town sitcom similar to The Andy Griffith Show or reminiscent of old-time radio (OTR) sitcoms like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and The Aldrich Family. “Great Adventure,” on the other hand, is more reminiscent of OTR adventure series like The Shadow and The Green Hornet.

Paul McCusker, the writer of this episode, could have made it a spy parody. Odyssey does many—quite successful—parodies in the future. He makes the riskier choice of a straightforward spy adventure. And it pays off. All the production staff do a great job: Phil Lollar as director should get credit for getting the pacing just right. According to AIO: TOG, it was Dave Arnold’s first episode doing the complete postproduction solo. It also said it featured some of the most complicated sound design in Odyssey up to that point, but Arnold pulled it off with style. John Campbell’s influence—from composing the theme all the way down to composing the majority of the music for the individual episodes—on Odyssey has been immense. I loved his score for this episode. It was different than his normal score and brought to mind classic spy adventures.

There’s some more reordering of the episodes going on here. I’d already noted, “V.B.S. Blues” was moved to after “Kid’s Radio” to (it appears) keep Ned’s episodes together. Now “Great Adventure” is moved before “The Case of the Secret Room” and “Return to the Bible Room.” Since neither of those episodes have an explicit summer theme, maybe it was moved to turn “V.B.S. Blues,” “Camp What-A-Nut,” and “Great Adventure” into a block of summer-themed episodes.

Despite that the bulk of the episode is about two characters we’ve never heard before and will never hear again, this episode makes one of the most concerted efforts thus far in the series to establish continuity. The episode begins with Whit recapping the summer: He recalls a tornado, VBS, trying to start a radio station, vacations, and camp. Little touches like this are a nice reward for dedicated listeners.

Odyssey, being a children’s series, inserts a kid into the spy action. Inserting a kid into a spy adventure—especially when it’s played straightforward instead of as a parody—is a tricky proposition. Spy Kids and Agent Cody Banks have both tried it with varying degrees of success (though it should be noted “Great Adventure” predates both of those movies by over a decade). Plus, Odyssey’s previous attempts at action adventure (the ditch in “My Brother’s Keeper” and the bear in “Camp What-A-Nut”) have been less than stellar. Terry in “Great Adventure” works and provides a character to describe some of the action you can’t see since it’s radio. Spy-fi is an inherently romantic genre anyway, and you can get away with a lot that is not realistic.

“Great Adventure” is a notch above your standard spy adventure. The typical spy adventure today is cynical: Your government is just as likely to kill you as it is to protect you. “Great Adventure” is sincere and patriotic. When Terry asks his dad why he became a spy, Catspaw replies, “I love my country, and I want to defend it against people out there who want to hurt it.” Contrast that with the antagonist, the “man in black” chasing them who is a “man with no county at all,” and he works for an international syndicate that sells military secrets to the highest bidder.

The climatic scene has an example of Chekhov’s gun. Chekhov’s gun is the technical term for when a seemingly irrelevant detail turns out to be central to the plot. When they enter Maxim’s (oddly pronounced so that it almost sounds like they’re calling the villain Maxine) lair, Terry notes the window washers, a seemingly irrelevant detail. The window washers turn out to be agents who save Catspaw’s life and assist in capturing Maxim.

The climatic scene also includes another spy-fi trademark: the twist ending. It turns out Catspaw’s capture was planned all along. A great episode. You can see why Terry said, “You mean, I just had the greatest adventure of the summer, and I can’t tell anyone about it.”

Matthew's Rating: 8 (out of 10)
More info about 042: The Last Great Adventure of Summer:

030: Honor Thy Parents

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Episode: 030: Honor Thy Parents
Originally Aired: June 11, 1988
From Album: Volume 0: The Lost Episodes

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N/A

The Lost Episodes liner notes includes the disclaimer:

“Honor Thy Parents,” “It Sure Seems Like It to Me,” and “Isaac the True Friend” were odd little episodes in which our usual hope of good writing, directing and acting fell a little short of our high standards, so we simply refused to include them in our albums. We include them here as interesting curiosities—and as a glimpse into the dynamic and pressures of creating a weekly radio series.

Since the producers of Adventures in Odyssey recognize that these episodes fail to meet the quality expected of Odyssey episodes, I’ve decided not to rate them. Instead I will let them stand as just that—“curiosities.” I will make a few short remarks about the episodes, but the reviews will be much shorter than my usual reviews.

You can add your own remarks in the comments. Do you disagree with the producers? Do you think this episode is worthy of inclusion in the regular Odyssey lineup? Tell us why.

Album 0 Gold Cover Chris mentions Odyssey Mall in her intro. In the small Oklahoma town I grew up in, the closest mall was a 90-minute drive. In my opinion, a mall automatically bumps you from small- to medium-sized town.

Odyssey’s attempts to represent hicks have been uniformly bad. When Odyssey crosses the line from loving tribute to into parody of small town life, the results are generally disastrous.

This episode is a more egregious example of everything magically fixes itself at the end than “Addiction Can Be Habit-Forming.” Whit makes everything right, the little girl learns to respect her parents, etc.

Matthew's Rating: N/A (out of 10)
More info about 030: Honor Thy Parents:
Episode: 037-38: Camp What-A-Nut (Parts 1 and 2)
Originally Aired: July 30, 1988
From Album: Volume 2: Stormy Weather

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7

Bear Attack! Odyssey’s going to camp! And Donny’s going too. Who’s Donny? Well, he’s writing a journal and he’s short. Other than that, it doesn’t really matter. He’s basically Jimmy.

In fact, according to AIO: TOG, the episode was originally conceived for Jimmy Barclay, but the actor who plays him was unavailable during the recording. It was going to be a continuation of Jimmy’s journal from “The Family Vacation.” The problem is Donny is never given any characteristic to differentiate himself from Jimmy, so he ends up being a generic character.

Camp—like VBS—is an almost universal experience. Most evangelicals have attended Bible camp, but even non-Christians have probably attended some kind of summer camp. If you’ve never been to summer camp, I pity you. Camp What-A-Nut is a great setting. It’s a story well I’m surprised Adventures in Odyssey hasn’t dipped into more often. You could easily base a whole Odyssey spin-off at the camp. This camp even has a chemistry lab! I personally have never been to a summer camp with a chemistry lab.

Camp What-A-Nut is only featured in three other episodes. “Camp What-A-Nut” aired during the summer of 1988. Connie and Lucy return the following summer in another two-parter, “Connie Goes to Camp.” After the summers of 1988 and 1989, Odyssey doesn’t return to Camp What-A-Nut until the fall of 1994 when Jimmy Barclay attends basketball camp (“The Fundamentals”). And it hasn’t been back since. Maybe Whit is too busy with Whit’s End to be camp director.

Most television sitcom episodes have a B-story, a subplot that usually thematically relates to the main plot. Surprisingly, most Odyssey episodes have not had a B-story. They generally have a single plotline running throughout the episode. “Camp What-A-Nut” is distinct, then, in that it has a B-story: Donny’s adventures at camp—especially his dealings with bully Chas Wentworth—form the main plot while Ned believing Donny’s sister Gloria has a crush on him serves as an entertaining B-story. Maybe the length of a two-parter afforded writer Phil Lollar a little more room than normal to maneuver.

You may remember from my review of the two-part “The Family Vacation” that I have a strong opinion on what kind of stories should and should not constitute a two-parter. “Camp What-A-Nut” is episodic enough that part 1 can stand on its own apart from part 2 fairly well, but nothing is really resolved in part 1. Thus it fails to meet all my qualifications for a two-parter, yet I’m willing to overlook that for the most part since it is otherwise such a strong story.

Which brings me to another feature of two-parters: the cliffhanger. A successful cliffhanger should accomplish two things: (1) keep you in suspense and (2) make you want to come back for the conclusion. The latter doesn’t matter so much when you’re listening to the albums—you’ll most likely listen to both parts back to back. At the end of part 1, Donny and Whit are being chased by a protective mama bear. Part 2, unfortunately, deflates any suspense by visiting the bear storyline just shortly at the beginning of the episode and not returning to it until almost nine minutes into the episode. And even then the resolution is delivered via narration rather than being dramatized. Here the “show, don’t tell” rule should have been followed.

Will Ryan, voice of the abandoned Officer Harley and eventual voice of Eugene, is a versatile and talented voice actor. Here he voices the goofy character chef Marco Dibiasi. Many sitcoms—even sitcoms like Odyssey that feature mostly realistic characters—often employ various goofy characters. For example, Dwight on The Office. Sometimes these characters are referred to derisively as “sitcom characters” (i.e. they couldn’t exist outside sitcoms). Some critics seem to think this is a negative, but realism is not the goal—nor should be the goal—of sitcoms. These characters serve the same purpose as caricature; they magnify specific character traits.

You can’t have it both ways though. A character can’t be both goofy and self-aware. Lollar trying to disguise what are clearly puns as misunderstood English falls flat. The puns Marco delivers require an understanding of English that we are to believe he does not obtain. He’s surprisingly self-aware when giving Ned advice about the possible crush and then again when lecturing Chas on treating people right. Using the character inserted to provide comic relief to also deliver serious messages sends mixed signals.

Ned’s line, “They’re just a bunch of 6th graders. How bad can they be?” should make anyone who’s served as a camp counselor laugh. As much as I’ve criticized Lollar for some of his characterizations in this episode, he should be praised for the work of classic comedy he pulls off in the boys cabin: pillow fight, lights out, tripping on luggage, pine cones in sleeping bag, tripping on luggage again, bird in cabin, tripping on luggage yet again. I would hazard a guess that Lollar’s been a camp counselor himself. I’ve been a camp counselor, and the preceding events aren’t that far off from the typical first night at camp. You spend all your time before lights out getting the campers ready for bed, so once the cabin goes dark, you still have to shower and get ready for bed yourself. Since you don’t want to use a flashlight and possibly disturb the (hopefully) sleeping campers, you stumble about tripping over luggage.

I think Odyssey should visit Camp What-A-Nut more often.

Matthew's Rating: 7 (out of 10)
More info about 037-38: Camp What-A-Nut (Parts 1 and 2):

Spoiler Policy

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Rough Bear Attack Since tomorrow’s review of “Camp What-A-Nut” contains what could be considered spoilers—especially since it is a two-parter with a cliffhanger—I thought now would be a good time to outline my spoiler policy. I will also add this information to the about page.

It is a maxim in cryptography (I’m probably the only person who would draw an analogy between criticism and cryptography) that secrecy does not equal security. An encryption method is considered secure only if how the method works is public knowledge. In fact, this axiom has been around since at least the 19th century and even has a name, Kerckhoffs’ Principle, which states, “a cryptosystem should be secure even if everything about the system, except the key, is public knowledge.”

I would paraphrase this principle for criticism as “a work of fiction (radio drama, movie, book, etc.) should still be interesting even if you know all the major plot twists in advance.” In other words, whether I will enjoy a work of fiction or not should not rely on how much I enjoy and/or am surprised by “the twist.”

Someone should be able to tell me as I walk into the theatre, “Oh, Bruce Willis is dead,” and it shouldn’t effect my enjoyment of The Sixth Sense one iota. If the movie is ruined by knowing Bruce Willis is dead, then I’ve got news for you: The movie was ruined long before “the twist” was spoiled. A movie is not as good as its “twist.” A movie is only as good as its characters, theme, and story. If these are good, they will remain good regardless of whether I’m surprised by “the twist.”

I dislike the word spoiler. It is a facile and juvenile word, a word that—like LOL and whatev—should drop out of one’s vocabulary after you turn eighteen. It implies one is using a review primarily as a consumer guide: Should I spend money on this or not?

As I’ve stated, I hope what I’m doing is more criticism than reviewing. Criticism presupposes intimate knowledge of plot details. Otherwise, an in-depth analysis would not be possible.

When writing a review, I assume you’ve listened to the episode. Of course, you’re free to read the review without having listened to the episode if you want. I’ve read some reviews where the first several paragraphs are a recap of the plot, and then just a few paragraphs are devoted to analysis. You’ll find no recap in my reviews. I presuppose you’re already familiar with the plot. If you really need a plot summary, that’s what the links to AIO Wiki at the bottom of each review are for.

Spoiler warnings are for wimps. Always expect an in-depth analysis of the plot.

The New 52 As I’ve made clear, I think all-ages is different than family-friendly. My problem with DC’s new lineup is not the inclusion of content inappropriate for children. The exclusion of all-ages comics results in DC limiting the potential size of their audience, a strange thing to do when you’re in the business of selling comics.

DC (in a desperate publicity stunt or bold creative move depending on how you look at it) canceled all of their series including Detective Comics, which had been published non-stop since 1937 and is the longest continuously published comic book. I guess since reboots were working so well for superheroes in the movies, they decided to essentially reboot all their superheroes.

They announced they would consolidate all their superheroes into 52 ongoing series referred to as the New 52. Each series would start at issue #1. So Detective Comics that ended on issue #881 in August rebooted as issue #1 in September. The writers were free to reinvent the characters. No longer were they constrained by over 800 issues of continuity.

This is an attempt to get new readers into comics who might otherwise be intimidated by trying to pick up a series with issue #881. I’ve never been a comic book person; I’ve always been more into graphic novels. But since DC has publicized this so heavily, I decided to check out the first issue of a few of the series. I doubt I’ll even read the second issue of any of them.

So far I’ve read Justice League, Action Comics, Detective Comics, and Batgirl.

DC uses their own rating system:

  • E - Everyone
  • T - Teen (12+)
  • T+ - Teen Plus (16+)
  • M - Mature (18+)

None of the 52 new series DC launched in September are rated E. Most of them are rated T, and some of them are rated T+. The four I’ve read were all rated T, but I would argue all of them except Justice League should have been rated T+.

Since DC canceled all of their old series, that means they don’t have a single series for kids. That baffles me. If they want to attract new readers (as their stated purpose for this whole reboot is), you would think Adventures in Odyssey’s target demographic of 8-12 would be their primary target too.

Comic books were at the peak of their popularity in the 1940s and 50s, and during that time, they were thought of as almost solely for kids. You would think if you were trying to return comic books to their former popularity, kids would be the first demographic you would go after.

Especially since they have four series starring Batman (Detective Comics, Batman, Batman and Robin, and Batman: The Dark Knight) and two series starring Superman (Action Comics and Superman), they could cater to several different audiences simultaneously. For example, Batman and Robin could be rated E, Batman could be rated T, Detective Comics could be rated T+, and Batman: The Dark Knight could be rated M.

What do you think? Have you read any of the New 52? What were your thoughts on them? Do you think DC would be more successful if they had more series for kids?

Episode: 022: A Simple Addition
Originally Aired: April 16, 1988
From Album: Volume 0: The Lost Episodes

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4.5

Family Portraits This is the final episode of the four episodes on The Lost Episodes that were rebroadcasts of Family Portraits episodes with the Odyssey wrap tacked on. The first three were: “Dental Dilemma,” “My Brother’s Keeper,” and “No Stupid Questions.” Of the four, “A Simple Addition” is the best, yet it still doesn’t quite fit in Adventures in Odyssey. There are stylistic issues I’d be much more apt to forgive if I were reviewing this as the thirteenth episode of Family Portraits rather than the twenty-second episode of Adventures in Odyssey.

I think it would have been better to have released a Family Portraits album instead of The Lost Episodes album with the Family Portraits episodes shoehorned into Adventures in Odyssey continuity. I know Family Portraits was released on cassette tape, but that is long out of print. Focus on the Family really should rerelease it on CD with packaging and artwork similar to the most recent Adventures in Odyssey albums. Alternatively, they could have rewrote and rerecorded these episodes to better fit with Odyssey continuity, but the time for that is long past due. Now it would just be better to rerelease Family Portraits in whole.

The producers didn’t decide upon the 8-12 target until Odyssey began. I mentioned “Dental Dilemma” alternated between serious adult drama and fun children’s sitcom. “A Simple Addition” seems to skew even younger than 8-12, like the producers were going after the Sesame Street demographic. The episode seems pointedly targeted at the five year old having a hard time with the birth of a new sibling. We also learn that Whit makes a pretty good babysitter.

“A Simple Addition” imparts biblical truth on a level a five year old can understand. Nicky’s dad shares with him that God created kittens and him and his new baby sister too.

There’s a lot of exposition near the end, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Paradoxically, since radio is not a visual medium, the “show, don’t tell” rule still applies. It is much more exciting to hear events dramatized than to hear a character just tell about them. But slavish adherence to a dictum like “show, don’t tell” straitjackets a writer. Sometimes a touching conversation between father and son can move the story along better than any action-filled event. Movies today have far too few meaningful conversations. The characters are too busy dodging bullets to dig into weighty philosophical issues.

Matthew's Rating: 4.5 (out of 10)
More info about 022: A Simple Addition:

035: V.B.S. Blues Review

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Episode: 035: V.B.S. Blues
Originally Aired: July 16, 1988
From Album: Volume 2: Stormy Weather

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7

Now that I’ve posted a review a day for a solid week since returning from my hiatus, I’m going to slow the pace to every other day for a while. So look for my review of “A Simple Addition” from The Lost Episodes on Wednesday.

Odyssey Skyline The first biblical reference of the series appeared in the second episode; the first reference to an aspect of Christian culture came in the fourth episode. Several months and a few dozen episodes later, “V.B.S. Blues” contains the first Bible story; it’s also the first episode where the primary setting is a uniquely Christian setting.

Focusing on the latter, as I remarked in my review of “Connie Comes to Town,” one-third (or approximately 100 million) Americans are evangelical Christians. Like Mugsy and his gang in this episode, in addition to evangelical Christians, VBS programs at churches around the world draw in millions of unchurched children every summer. Hundreds of millions of people have attended VBS, yet until Adventures in Odyssey, I can’t recall a single sitcom episode where a VBS was the setting. Odyssey is filling a gap left by mainstream media.

If you are paying attention to the episode numbers in the review titles, you probably noticed the last Volume 2 episode I reviewed was episode 36, and then this is only episode 35. That is the actual order the episodes are in on the album. Ned Lewis appears in only three episodes, this one and episodes 37 and 38. If the album had kept the broadcast order, Ned’s episodes would have been split up by “Kid’s Radio.” The producers must have chose to reshuffle the order on the album to keep all of Ned’s episodes together.

Whit and Connie (and later Eugene) are the main characters of Odyssey. There are also recurring characters like Tom Riley and the Barclays. Then there are one-time characters like Craig and Annie. Ned falls somewhere in between. Odyssey has a lot of characters like Ned. They’re there for a few—or maybe even several—episodes, and then they’re gone. Maybe we should call them semi-recurring characters.

I like Ned. That’s probably because I identify with him. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a Bible teacher at a camp for 9-14 year olds. I teach the 12-14 year old class each summer, approximately the same age group Ned was teaching at VBS. Plus, I started teaching at this camp when I was still a teenager. Also, I started a Christian drama team with three other friends when I was in high school. We performed sketches at our churches, other area churches, and coffee shops.

This episode shares the same theme as “Kid’s Radio,” the preceding or following episode depending on whether you’re following album or broadcast order (I’m reviewing the episodes in album order). Pastor Williams (played by Chuck Bolte who also plays George Barclay who eventually becomes a pastor—foreshadowing?) admonishes Ned, “It’s admirable for you to want to use your talent for God.” The episode encourages the audience to create. Anyone—even a teenager—can write and perform sketches for the church.

“V.B.S. Blues” has two framing stories. The first half is Ned recounting the travails of the past week to Whit. The second half is what is called a show-within-a-show, or in this case, a sketch-within-a-show. The show-within-a-show is how the episode tells the Bible story of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego—or a pool rack, a tool shed, and a billy goat.

Matthew's Rating: 7 (out of 10)
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016: No Stupid Questions

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Episode: 016: No Stupid Questions
Originally Aired: March 5, 1988
From Album: Volume 0: The Lost Episodes

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Album 0 Packaging Contrary to the popular maxim that is quoted in this episode, there are such things as stupid questions. For example, before passing out a test, the professor often asks, “Any last questions before you take the test?” On numerous occasions I’ve heard a classmate (usually thinking they’re being funny) ask, “Yes, do we have to take the test?” I dare you to challenge a group of junior high boys that they can’t come up with any stupid questions. I assure you you’ll be barraged with idiocy.

The sentiment underneath the cliché is true: It is never wrong to be curious, you should investigate God’s creation, and it’s okay to question commonly accepted knowledge. Odyssey could have communicated this sentiment without resorting to a tired cliché.

There was a potentially great story buried by the sappy stuff about no question being a stupid question. Chris, the wheelchair-bound, grumpy, middle-aged reference librarian, and Meg, the precocious, question-asking little girl, form an unlikely friendship—similar to the bond between the grumpy old man Carl and adventurous little boy Russell in Pixar’s Up. “No Stupid Questions” is an excellent example of how mentorship changes both the mentoree and the mentor.

Although the episode numbers may lead you to believe otherwise, “Dental Dilemma,” “My Brother’s Keeper,” and this episode all actually precede the very first episode of Adventures of Odyssey (technically Odyssey USA, but we aren’t going to get that pedantic here). They were all episodes of Family Portraits, the thirteen-episode test series that preceded Odyssey. As such, not all the stylistic details had been nailed down yet. It’s one reason they’ve been consigned to an album of “lost episodes.” Whit’s soliloquy at the end stuck out. I’m sure it was fine during Family Portraits, but Chris’ opening and closing of the Adventures in Odyssey version rendered it superfluous.

Matthew's Rating: 2 (out of 10)
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036: Kid's Radio Review

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Episode: 036: Kid's Radio
Originally Aired: July 23, 1988
From Album: Volume 2: Stormy Weather

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Kid's Radio I grew up in a small Oklahoma town. The church I attended broadcast its service on the local television affiliate. Starting in seventh grade until I graduated high school, I helped out with the television ministry. I started out operating a camera, then moved up to typing graphics (names that appeared on the screen), moved on to running sound (the television feed had a separate sound board from the house sound), and eventually graduated to directing.

Although the service was not broadcast live, we essentially did a live edit. We had three (sometimes four) cameras. Each camera operator wore a headset. Directing consisted of giving the camera operators instructions over the headsets and switching between the camera feeds using a video switcher. The switcher fed into a non-linear video editor that was used to burn the service to a DVD that was then delivered to the local television affiliate.

I gained invaluable skills while also doing a ministry. Brad and Sherman gained invaluable skills while operating Kid’s Radio, and they also were doing a ministry. They weren’t just playing music and delivering news; they were also sharing God’s truth with Bible verses. Adventures in Odyssey itself is both ministry and art.

Some think it’s an either/or: Either you do ministry, or you do art. The church is accused of suppressing, censoring, or simply not caring about art. That’s not my experience. The church fosters the arts. Some of the greatest paintings, sculptures, and poetry of the last two thousand years are products of the church. Today, the church utilizes video, radio, the internet, and mobile apps.

And half-measures aren’t good enough. Odyssey wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has if the producers’ attitude was, “Since it’s a ministry, it doesn’t matter if the sound quality is perfect or the voice acting professional or the sound effects are all that good.” We are producing art for a God who demands our very best in all we do. Whit pulls the plug on Kid’s Radio when it is obvious that Brad and Sherman don’t have the support they need to continue producing a quality product.

“Kid’s Radio” teaches an important lesson that to go from inspiration to realization requires hard work. Also, Christian art can only survive if Christians are willing to invest time in it. If there are just two members in your church’s drama team, they are going to feel like Brad and Sherman trying to run Kid’s Radio all by themselves.

The failure of Kid’s Radio was not a lack of effort—both Brad and Sherman put in plenty of effort; it was a failure of leadership. A leader must motivate others to get involved by effectively communicating the vision of the project to them. Brad can’t be blamed. He can’t be older than thirteen or fourteen. This was a learning experience for him.

Or, at least, it should have been.

The ending undermines the message of the rest of the episode. Whit, as an inventor, surely understands you learn as much from failure as you do from success (he said as much in the very first episode.) A local radio producer offers Brad and Sherman their own show on his station. They would have learned much more if they had to spend the rest of the summer analyzing why Kid’s Radio had failed and determining how they could regroup to succeed.

The radio producer isn’t concerned with ministry or even art. He’s hoping to get in on a fad before it’s over. The only thing they learned is that if your YouTube video gets a bunch of hits (the 2011 analogue to Brad and Sherman’s short-lived radio success) a hotshot producer may offer you a show of your own (that is, until the next reality television sensation comes along).

I loved the do-it-yourself ethos of “Kid’s Radio.” During the news segment, Brad urged Sherman to hurry up because his fingers were getting tired. Brad was generating a typewriter sound effect by actually typing on a typewriter in the background during the news report. This is very similar to the footlights in “Lights Out at Whit’s End.” Both encourage the audience to create. “Kid’s Radio” even especially emphasizes that kids can create.

I’ve mentioned before Odyssey has aged remarkably well. The episodes on Volume 2 first aired in 1988 but are as fresh today as they were twenty years ago. Of course, there’s a VCR here and a dated gang reference there and every once in a while a cassette player, but overall it would be difficult to tell these episodes weren’t recorded in 2011. In Sherman’s news segment, he announces, “Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev announced a change in the policy of glasnost.” There is no more Soviet Union. If kids listening to this episode today even know what the Soviet Union and glasnost are, it is from the history books and not current events.

Matthew's Rating: 6 (out of 10)
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