Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Adventures in Odyssey: The Labyrinth

"Don't get lost in the Labyrinth," were the last words John Avery Whittaker spoke to his son, Jason, at the close of "The Green Ring Conspiracy" (Spring 2011), before Jason went off on a quest across the globe to track down the villainous Mr. Grote, a villain in the Peter Lorre/Sidney Greenstreet mold. The title of their latest episode, "The Labyrinth," tells you all you need to know about the dark journey Jason is on now (well, dark for a kids' show).

This blog is targeted at "young evangelicals," so if you are reading this, I assume you have some passing knowledge of "Adventures in Odyssey." But for the uninitiated, it is an audio drama set in the fictional town of Odyssey, created in 1987 by Phil Lollar and Steve Harris, and produced for children by Focus on the Family. While there have been some slow moments and two official hiatuses, the show has gone on uninterrupted since that time. They are now preparing for the release of their 55th album "The Deep End" (one album contains 12 half-hour episodes, originally on cassettes, then CDs, and now available online), which contains the episodes, "The Labyrinth, Parts 1-3").
Over 700 episodes have been produced over 25 years. But a lot has changed. If you are my age, then you probably first listened to the show during the early 1990's. Focus on the Family was still in California, and the show's creative team was still virtually unchanged since its creation. In fact, from 1987 till 1998, the show's production staff changed very little, and aside from co-creator Steve Harris moving on after the first year, no member of the creative team was absent for any extended period of time. This produced a great deal of consistency during those first ten years.

The lead character in Adventures in Odyssey has always been an old widower named John Avery Whittaker, or "Whit," to his friends. He owns an "Ice Cream Shoppe and Discovery Emporium" called "Whit's End." From 1987-1994, he was voiced by Hollywood veteran Hal Smith, who portrayed town drunk "Otis" on "The Andy Griffith Show" and voiced Winnie the Pooh and many other classic cartoon characters. When Smith unexpectedly passed away in 1994, the show's future was uncertain. As a sound-a-like could not be found, the producers decided to shift the focus of the show to two new characters. One would be the already established but little heard son of Whit, Jason, who would retire from his position as an agent for the National Security Agency to come manage Whit's End after Whit was quickly dispatched to a new project in the Middle East (the in-universe explanation for the character's absence), and the other would be a new grandfatherly character named "Jack Allen," notably played by the highly respected actor Allan Young ("The Time Machine," "Mr. Ed").
In 1996, however, a replacement for Hal Smith was found in commercial voice-over actor Paul Herlinger, and the character of Whit returned to Odyssey, never to leave again. This established an important precedent for the show, proving that it was larger than any one actor and could, theoretically, be continued indefinitely.
After a creative rough patch in the 1998-2000 seasons, it became unclear to what level Focus on the Family was committed to continuing the show. An almost entirely new creative team had been assembled, and, for the first time, did not include any of the creators. Long time producer, Paul McCusker, returned to help shepherd the show and started the longest running story arch in the show's history (by episode count), "The Novacom Saga," which, while certainly pushing the boundaries of the genre, re-established the show on a solid footing. Production ran uninterrupted from there until 2008, when the show took a planned hiatus to consider a restructure.
It was during that time that many new writers joined the show, some young enough to have been childhood fans when the show started. Most notably, writer/director Nathan Hoobler joined the show as an intern in 2001, when he wrote his first episode, "The Triangle," which details how Whit originally met his deceased wife, Jenny. Today, Nathan is still with the show, and is credited, along with Paul McCusker, as the writer of "The Labyrinth." If one listens to the series as a whole, as I have been doing over the last year and a half, one will note that Hoobler's episodes often have great depth, and deal with complex issues in surprisingly mature ways, given the series' intended audience. Of the new crop of writers, Hoobler is my personal favorite.
In 2008, after 20 years of production, and 10 since the last hiatus, the show once again took a break. After a fantastic 50th album, featuring episodes dedicated to or referencing highlights of the show's entire history, there was, undoubtedly, some talk of packing it in. 20 years is a long time and many of the cast were planning to retire from acting and heading off to exotic locales like Hawaii, Costa Rica, and Florida. Paul Herlinger had decided to retire as well, which meant the show was again going to be missing its star (Herlinger has since passed away).
The producers decided to continue the show, but in a radically different way. First, many of the older characters who were played by actors that had retired (or passed away) would not be returning. The decision was made not to write them out or say they did not exist, but that they simply would not be featured in stories anymore (something that had been slowly happening over time anyway). The show would focus on the tight core group of Whit, Connie Kendall, and Eugene Meltzner (voiced, since the beginning of the series, by actors Katie Leigh and Will Ryan, respectively). Also returning from previous albums was the zany character of "Wooten," created in 2001 and played by voice actor Jess Harnell. One character who had been written out in album 50 was Jason, who since 1999 had really been more of an intermittent presence on the series anyway, as his best moments had been his interactions with Jack Allen during the inter-Whit period of 1994-96. Fleeing old enemies from his NSA days, Jason was forced to fake his own death, his survival known only to his father and Connie.

Secondly, they would need a new Whit. Technology, ease of communication, and a Hollywood casting infrastructure that was now heavily internet based and better acclimated to independent productions than it was in 1994, made the process considerably easier, and shorter. The producers settled on voice actor Andre Stojka, who, interestingly, had replaced original Whit actor Hal Smith as the voice of Winnie the Pooh. Though Stojka's voice is considerably different from both Smith and Herlinger, its presence serves to remind the audience that they are essentially listening to a new show, one free of much of the baggage that comes with the excessive continuity inherent in a show over 20 years old (Star Trek anyone?).
Finally, the show's sound design would change. Though the show had been produced digitally for many years, the new sound designers (some who had been children when the show started) opted for a softer, more polished approach. Bombastic sounds are rare now, and there is a greater clarity to the voice recordings. Listen to an episode from 2010 and compare it to one from 1992 and you will hear a tremendous difference in tonal quality. The music, though still produced by series stalwart John Campbell, also has a quieter, more film-like, realistic sound, and the main theme has been completely re-orchestrated.
After sitting out 2009, new episodes began airing in the spring of 2010. Though it started as a radio show, and still airs every Saturday morning (and every day in some markets), no revenue is generated from the broadcasts. Production is oriented toward album releases, and they produce two albums (24 episodes) per year, much like a regular television show. Recently, Focus on the Family has begun selling the albums online through their website (powered by Christian Book Distributors) prior to their release on CD by a good month (individual episodes are also available for download for a low price or $1.99). This is to help compensate for the fact that while digital albums are sold for less than the MSRP of the CD album, it is often possible to by CDs at a lower cost through a wholesaler than it is to buy the download album. However, when you by a digital album, one-hundred percent of that purchase goes toward supporting the show (rather than having to split it amongst manufacturing and physical distribution costs), which is the only way the show actually gains revenue and sustains itself financially. Focus on the Family intends to continue producing the series until it can no longer sustain itself financially, which it currently does through the sale of albums. Unlike in previous years where the episodes would air on the radio even a year before their release for purchase, you can now buy each album just as it begins to air.

"The Labyrinth" is a follow up to Album 53, "The Green Ring Conspiracy," which was a 12-part episode about a group of counterfeiters, under the direction of Mr. Grote, operating out of the town of Odyssey. Jason Whitaker returns to Odyssey from his self imposed exile to combat these criminals, and does so by going undercover as a criminal himself. A bit more morally ambiguous than their typical story lines, it's unclear just how far Jason has had to go to seem like a criminal. In the time since, Jason has chased Mr. Grote around the world, and has now landed in London. The episode is notable for containing none of the regular cast, and featuring the kind of espionage plot the producers imagined featuring back when they first introduced Jason but never got around to doing. I believe Hoobler was aware of this while writing, as he gives us our first real look at Jason in full spy mode. The episode's tone seems like a mix between Charles Dickens and Guy Ritchie, since it features more of the grittier side of London than anything you might see in a James Bond picture. There is a new, very compelling character named "Sew" (pronounced Sue), which is short for "sewer rat," (hence the Dickens) who fills the episode's child requirement. The episode also features the return of a very old character, not heard on the show since Album 32: "Hidden Treasures," Odyssey's newspaper editor Dale Jacobs, played by co-creator Phil Lollar himself (his first performance on Odyssey, besides a small cameo in "The Green Ring Conspiracy" since 2000). Getting his biggest role since "The Mysterious Stranger" in Album 18, Dale is a main character in this episode, working together with Jason to bring these wicked men to justice. But "The Labyrinth" is really about a wandering soul, and what can happen to a person when they are cut off from all support and forced to wage spiritual battles on their own. The final scene of the trilogy is a poignant conversation between Dale and Jason that makes me wonder what is in store for Jason's future and what they might do with him on the show.
I have always felt that the characters in Odyssey always function best under difficult, dramatic circumstances which feature a bit of intrigue. Some of their best episodes occurred in "The Blackguard Chronicles," "The Novacom Saga," the Eugene's search for his father arch, or standalone's like "The Mortal Coil," "The Cross of Cortez," and "The Search for Whit." These situations give the characters moments that challenge their values and help define who they are. As a teaching tool, they often give the audience much to engage in, and, ultimately, they are very entertaining. There were certain weaknesses to "The Green Ring Conspiracy" that occur when you are trying to put together an intrigue based show but are trying to stay way from relying too much on established continuity. However, "The Labyrinth" shows that the writers are building a new continuity that can be as rich as the old, and hopefully can take us to new places that we haven't gone before.
Ultimately, that is what is most encouraging to me about the new "Adventures in Odyssey." It is not the same as the show many of us grew up with, but that is a good thing. There will be missteps along the way as they find their new creative footing, but they are doing good work. I hope that if you, like me, were a fan as a child you will consider supporting this new incarnation of the show, either for your own enjoyment or for the children many of you are now having. It's a worthy product, and I am confident in the production team's ability to build something new that can stand the test of time. In the immortal words of John Avery Whittaker, "the best is yet to come."
"The Labyrinth, Part 1" is currently available for free download here.
To find out how to get parts 2 and 3 for free as well, see here.
Album 55: "The Deep End," will be released in March 2012 as a digital download and in May as a CD album. All past albums are available in either format here. (Click on the desired album to see MP3 price).
Other Resources:
Official Odyssey Website: www.whitsend.org
Odyssey News Site: The Odyssey Scoop
Fan Made Music Video: "Communicate."
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