Brothers and sisters and all other beloveds, we come together during this most holy season of Lent to celebrate and meditate on one of the most insightful and dark critiques of twentieth century America ever bestowed upon us: the magnificent Moral Orel, a stop motion animated show originally broadcast on Adult Swim from 2005 through 2008. Every week, our text will be roughly ten episodes. If this sounds daunting, remember that we grow through suffering — and also that each episode is only ten minutes long.
Now there is some controversy regarding what order in which to watch the episodes. The production order is different from the order of aired episodes. As we know that we are to show love in all things, let me kindly and compassionately inform you that anyone who holds to the airing order is a damned heathen doomed to eternal suffering — and not the good kind of suffering I mentioned before.
Now that we have that out of the way, let us begin.
(Moral Orel is available for streaming — in heretical order! — on Hulu. For proper viewing order, see “List of Moral Orel episodes” on Wikipedia.)
THIS WEEK’S TEXT
Our passage is this week is the first season of Moral Orel. In these episodes we are first introduced to Orel Puppington, an 11 year old who wants to do God’s will. We also meet his parents (Clay and Bloberta) and his little brother Shapey. At this early point they seem a simple bunch, a two-dimensional image of a stereotypical midwestern protestant family. Orel is the outlier, the abnormal one. His misadventures, despite being motivated by his desire to serve god, wreak havoc on the town and always get poor Orel into trouble. Only his father’s tough biblical love (per Proverbs 13:24) keeps Orel trusting the Lord’s incomprehensible ways and not leaning on his own understanding (per Proverbs 3:5). It is not until a very special Christmas that Orel begins to suspect that the world doesn’t work the way he always thought it did.
I didn’t like Moral Orel for a long time. It was while I was still a Christian, yes, but it wasn’t *because* I was a Christian. I was a big fan of The Wittenburg Door — a Christian satire magazine that contributed material to early seasons of The Daily Show (think Babylon Bee but without the SoCon bias). I didn’t like Moral Orel because, from the smattering of episodes I had seen, it seemed to be covering very tired ground. At first glance, it’s a parody of “Davey and Goliath,” a 1960s show that was actually relatively ecumenical and non-fundamentalist. It seemed like a cheap shot without a lot of depth. To try to put that up as exhibit A of “haha christians suck” seemed lazy and maybe a little cruel.
What I didn’t realize at the time that this sick, obscene show is the very opposite of cruel. In fact, it’s one of the few shows I can think of that has sympathy for almost every single character (yes, even Clay IMO). By the end of the run, most characters — no matter how much of a stereotypical caricature they seem at first — are revealed to have deep and complicated reasons for why they are the way they are.
Of course, that’s very difficult to see in the first few episodes. “The Lord’s Greatest Gift” obfuscates its deeper message of not being too literal by having necromancy be real, giving the episode more of a South Park feel. “Charity” is similarly over-the-top in how things play out (though I do have to say that Carolyn Lawrence’s performance of Orel in this episode is nothing short of inspired. The way she sells “Oh boy, Crack!” makes it one of the funniest line readings I’ve ever heard).
Of course, the ridiculousness and contradictory nature of bible literalism is part of what is being mocked here, but the first time I watched it the inclusion of “lost commandments” in these episodes seemed like the show was setting up strawmen just make it easier to have something to knock down. Now I can see that the lost commandments motif is about how fundamentalists add burdens beyond what Jesus intended in order to control people (cf Matthew 23), but this can be hard to pick up the first time around.
Moral Orel is a show about growth, and maybe there is no good way to start such a show. After all, the thing about organic growth is that it is slow and invisible. Show me an acorn and I have no way of suspecting that it will one day become a huge tree. The first few episodes of this show are acorns. Scott Adsit, one of the show’s main creative voices and second only to creator Dino Stamatopoulos, has said that the original plan was to — over the course of five years — take silly little cartoon characters and turn them into the most realistic and nuanced depictions of humanity on television. Well, they certainly got the silly right. It’s hard not to watch the very first episode – “The Lord’s Greatest Gift” and think its not just a rip-off of South Park. I’m glad it got better . . . eventually.
“God’s Chef” is likewise an episode that would turn me off to the series if I didn’t know where it ended up. If someone else wants to defend it, I’d love to hear it. But I think the grossness of the offense to the women in the episode is pretty indefensible even given that it’s a cartoon (a much much later episode describes what Orel does here as rape and I can’t disagree). I guess it’s disappointing because I think later episodes reveal this show CAN deal with issues of bodily autonomy being violated. But this episode chooses not to. The women exist as a gag rather than individuals in their own right, and even though I get that denying that women can have sexual agency is a theme throughout the series, I think it is too sloppy here. This episode almost caused Scott Adsit to quit, not because he didn’t like it but because his sister was so enraged upon being shown it that they could not keep from arguing about it and he was upset about the tension in their relationship it was causing. She eventually just told him not to show her his work anymore (imo family members seeing your creative work is always a risky business). FYI, she changed her mind after watching the second season. I think a lot of people did.
I don’t remember exactly when my mind changed about Moral Orel. It was after hearing people rave about the final season. I eventually caught them all out of order, which given the non-linear nature of the final season really wasn’t all that bad. I’m still not a super fan of the very first episodes. I think the first episode that really points to what the show will become is “The Blessed Union.”
What sets “The Blessed Union” apart is the introduction of Stephanie. Stephanie’s demeanor and voice acting is immediately more natural than anyone seen in the series up to this point, and finally lets us know that this isn’t a shallow and stagnant universe, we’re just in a location with stagnant people. She’s a breath of fresh air and honestly the show would have been improved by introducing her even earlier. It also gives us a little bit of hope for Orel for the first time. Having him be constantly berated for trying his best is getting old by this point and its nice to see that it is at least possible for him to meet people who exist outside the bible bubble.
“The Blessed Union” is also the first episode where it seems like Orel and I might have grown up in the same community. My school and church didn’t have zombies or mass impregnations, but it did have a very strong belief that a woman was at her happiest when helping a man and that sexual pleasure was a guy thing only. Like Orel, I had a precicious interest in wanting to prepare to please my future wife. And also like Orel, there was no way my dad was going to talk to me about it. My sex education was half a dozen books on Christians and sex that my dad gave me, one of which on the very first page said “now don’t just give this book to your son and never speak of it again.” Which is of course what he did. The most any of those books said about the female orgasm was one said it sure was nice for the woman if it happened, but she also feels warm and happy just feeling her man inside her.
The other early episode that had some teaching that was very similar to the kind of stuff I got in middle and high school is “Omnipresence.” I went through a period where my friend and I were very obsessed with the idea of faith healing, and were certain that we were on the edge of going around healing people in Jesus’s name. After all, Jesus wants people healed and Jesus gives us anything if we ask for it in his name, so as long as we have faith, healing should be easy – right? I’m not kidding, I remember thinking this way. My friend and I were part of a good deeds club, and when we went to a nursing home to fellowship with the old folks, my friend and I started laying hands on an old man with a broken leg. We prayed for him to be healed in the name of Jesus. We started getting loud and our faculty chaperone broke it off. My friend and I were sheepish after that, each of us expecting that the fault had been in our own lack of faith. Watching Orel be similarly told he can’t do miracles, but be similarly mistaken about *why* he can’t do miracles, is really poignant to me. I was a good kid and Orel was a good kid and good kids with good intentions and bad beliefs end up doing harmful — or at the very least obnoxious — things. The episode “Maturity” shows how much pressure is put on Orel. Its his job to watch over his little brother — not even for the brother’s sake, but just because above all it is Orel’s job to keep people from getting upset.
We’ve got the flow and the formula for the show now, so I’m going to skip forward to the season finale: “The Best Christmas Ever.” Way back when, it was such a boneheaded move for Cartoon Network to show this episode first. Who shows the season finale first? Adult Swim, that’s who. This is a brilliant episode, the entire point of which is to break open and tear down the facade that such a thing as “Status quo” exists. The episode simply does not work without the preceding nine mostly formulaic episodes ahead of it. But with those, what you get is an episode that deconstructs not just the hypocrisy its been mocking up to this point but also the easy resolutions its been allowing itself to indulge in. There is no resolution to this episode. It simply ends with Orel waiting for a miracle. Hell, even The Simpsons gives more of a nod to happy endings. The ending of this episode completely leaves the world of television convention and stares straight into the abyss of reality. No one is coming to make the child’s Christmas happy. Instead it is something that he will simply have to survive through for now and make sense of later. Is it any wonder that Orel actually kind of looks forward to getting punished in the study? It’s nice to believe there is a father figure who is going to keep you on track and tell you the answers, even if you don’t like what the answers are. But if you are standing outside in the snow desperate for an answer and none comes, what does that mean? Is there no Father God up there or are people simply (to foreshadow a much later episode) not even worth being slapped down?
(random note: Orel and Shapey destroying the nativity scene is adorable. The writers never forget to highlight that their main characters are kids.)
This song plays during the episode “Maturity,” reflecting the soul-numbing doldrums that are the essence of being an adult.
And now is the time when we turn to each other in fellowship. Introduce yourself and tell us your connection to Moral Orel. Is this your first time through or are you a long time fan?