Saturday, June 28, 2014

Thoughts on The Ties That Bind, Part 1

I love Odyssey because of the seemingly never-ending adaptability that the show can provide. The show can take chances and different formats and still be the same show with the same characters that we love. 

I've noticed that Odyssey has often taken cues from current media in terms of structure and format. At the beginning, multiple episodes were released per year, all not of the greatest quality, but with some great ones in the mix. Stories were largely stand-alone, but they had a couple story threads and serialized storylines that popped up from time to time, including Blackgaard, Connie's road to salvation and Christian journey, Eugene's arc, etc. This is similar to many shows of the day, with more procedural-like formats for the casual viewer with few channels available (a la NCIS, Law & Order) while throwing in a couple ongoing storylines for the devoted viewer. 

Eventually, as the show evolved, the show began to become more serialized as the 2000s came into play. I consider this era to be the Golden Age of Odyssey history, as the character and plot arcs intertwined and moved forward at a blistering pace while creating great lessons and memorable moments (Novacom Saga and beyond, so basically Albums 35ish - 49). TV took this step in this decade as well as serialized TV began to rise, such as 24 and Lost. 

Much as Odyssey this season is exploring marriage & family,
Martin Freeman & the cast of FX's Fargo (parental advisory) are
sparking discussion around the country about morality
and the role of God as a storyteller in our lives.
Photo courtesy The Guardian.
Right now, the current trend on TV is closed-ended series, anthologies, miniseries, and the like. Writers like this format because it allows them to work on something that they know has an end, and they don't have to fill space or think up ideas for next season (see: Fargo, True Detective). Odyssey has taken on this trend and retrofitted it for their own purposes in Album 58: The Ties That Bind, which releases on next week and on the radio this fall. After doing the "concept album" with The Best Small Town (Album 50, 2008) & Clanging Cymbals (Album 54, 2011) and the miniseries/audio movie with The Green Ring Conspiracy (Album 53, 2011), The Ties That Bind looks like it wants to be a concept miniseries, which is definitely an interesting concept in itself, taking on God's design for marriage and family, which could easily easily be a very controversial topic. 

After hearing the first part on the latest episode of the podcast, I threw together a couple thoughts about what appeared to be the direction of the next thirteen shows. My first question is about the idea of creating a "fourteen part episode." Paul McCusker in the interview for said podcast said that he had envisioned 18 - 24 episodes, but they had cut one storyline. The storyline was originally going to be 12 episodes, but they needed more time to finish the story and made 14 episodes. To me, it seems a little bit lazy to call it, Part One and etc. I could cut Green Ring some slack because all of the storylines focused on the conspiracy and the counterfeit money. However, this new album is more of a concept album, with all of the storylines focused on a concept, that of family. To not name episodes individually seems to cheapen them, and it seems a little bit lazy, in my opinion, to not do so. The first episode serves as a clear introduction to a variety of storylines, but the struggle I had was deciding whether to cut the show some slack because of its short running time for episodes. When I watch a good episode of television or a movie, the hour or two hours that I watch is a coherent hour(s). For example, in the episode The Taming of the Two, the two parallel storylines (Bernard and Nick & Edwin and Malcolm) have a coherent theme in teamwork. Green Ring held a variety of themes, but it needed twelve parts to tell its story. The Novacom Saga held a variety of themes, but it told multiple storylines and lessons through multiple episodes that were coherent in theme. I don't mean to pay so much attention to the episode titles, but The Ties That Bind seems to play the same game as Novacom story-wise, and yet it's called a "fourteen-parter" so storylines can come and go as they please. Of course, this could all be rendered invalid when I hear the other thirteen parts.

As much as I was lukewarm towards The Green Ring Conspiracy, it definitely served as the true reboot for the series, as the writers figured out how to better write for its new characters. That holds true in this first part, as Paul McCusker skillfully lays out new directions for the citizens of Odyssey to head out and find conflict and conversation in. 

- the Parkers
So now, every Parker child has been replaced by their original voice. Jury's still out on this new Matthew, and of course I am strongly biased toward Zach because he did such a great job with a character that originally seemed like another bland Sam Johnson, but the new actor did well. Time will tell, although at the moment, my ideal Parker family includes Marc Evan Jackson (who I've seen all over TV this past year), Amanda Troop, Kelly Stables, Zach Callison, and Sydney Shiotani.

- Eugene and Katrina likely hosting Buck at their house
Loved Connie's little meta commentary on our fan discussions regarding Buck. I don't know how I feel yet about a full-on adoption, but this trial run opens up a lot of possible plot and conflict possibilities.

- Connie fixing up her house, remembering her mom
Nice to see continuity from Album 57 and Connie still realistically grieving over June's death. A welcome addition to the overall discussion and conversation about family. 

- Penny and Wooton at Comic-Connellsville, Penny's lack of depth
Loved the clever references to fan culture and Pin Tweaks, referencing Kimmy Robertson's most famous role in Twin Peaks, an anthology mystery series in the early '90s. I enjoyed seeing Wooton back in the comic world - it was disappointing when Powerboy could no longer be used (some copyright thing). I've since felt that Captain Absolutely, although an equally great character and symbol to discuss truth, wasn't able to define Wooton as that comic genius as Powerboy did, showing his money and fame and his struggles with that part of his life, which could partly explain the lapse of character for him since the new era began. His new secret comic idea could bring that back. Penny's line, "I'm here because Wooton's interested in comic books and I'm interested in whatever he's interested in," might've been sweet, but to me, it only reinforced the lack of direction and character for her character, which is a shame, because Kimmy's a real talent. She has been defined by her interactions with Connie and Wooton, and when she's given a chance to shine, it's an episode where she tries some *wacky* new idea, fails, and gets a gentle sermon from Whit. SHE'S NOT A CHILD! What I just described is what used to happen to the first generation of Odyssey kids! Give her something to grow from! Bring her mother into town (the ties that find, amirite?)...

- the return of Pastor Juan and Jules
Yay for continuity! Good thing Shona lives closeby to Burbank, where they record. I pray Jules is not the Perilous Pen and that it's Penny (which could give her character an intriguing new dimension), but I could be wrong. 

- Whit's new conflict
Oh my. They're tackling it. Very very excited to see Odyssey take on another controversial topic, and I'm glad Andre Stojka finally gets something dramatic to sink his wonderful owl-y chops into. Paul Herlinger stepped in and immediately got Clara (Album 28: Welcome Home). Andre Stojka got Finish What You... (Album 51: Take It From the Top) and Forgiving, More or Less (Album 54: Clanging Cymbals) ("Big scoop, I've got one for the ice cream, har, har" will live on in infamy).

Paul Herlinger said in the interview following the episode release that the team intends to 
"raise the awareness of God's design for marriage and family and then explore it, rather than constantly teach it, but at least explore it in a variety of ways through the different storylines we've created and hopefully give parents and kids a lot to talk about, because in the fourteen episodes, there's a lot there, and it's not all heavy-handed teaching, in fact, I'd say the vast majority of what you've hearing will be subtle lines and references and assumptions on the characters that teach as much as the moments when we're overtly teaching something."
That's really heartening news to hear. In a world where the image of those against "tolerance" and "inclusitivity" includes the Westboro Baptist Church, LGBTQ bullying, and hate crimes against the gay community, it's great to hear that Odyssey intends on exploring these issues with love, not hate, not explicitly, blatantly preaching, but still trying to get across important truths. 

Odyssey was always at its strongest when it opted for subtlety and ambiguity as opposed to preaching. That's how good storytelling works. It whispers truths. It connects with you on a deeper, more meaningful level. I'm dismayed by the fact that you admit to "whining and complaining" when those storytellers weren't always choosing to make it easy for you. 
Is this where Evangelical "artistry" (dare I call it that?) has ended up? Do we demand that the things we already believe be spelled out for as in explicit detail, rather than let ourselves be surprised or convicted by the subtlety and nuance of a good story? 
- Jelly, The ToO

Sometimes the little things, like looking at the nuances, beliefs, experiences, facts, and feelings in these difficult issues and the people that define these discussions, allow us to place a human face on the debates that are currently playing out all around the U.S. In addition, exploring the family doesn't only necessarily mean those members of our communities - it's the nuclear families, dynamics between friends and mentors and teachers, and societal problems resulting from broken families that also need to be addressed. 

And that exploration? Looking at it through a lens of love is great, but if you want to really make an impact - well, you need God's love for that. And his ties always bind.

Listen to Part 1 here!
Sign up for the Odyssey Adventure Club here
Preorder Album 58: The Ties That Bind here

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