Adventures in Odyssey: An Open Letter
Dear Sirs, Madams, or Otherwise,
Please forgive any slight taken concerning the greeting, but seeing as I was writing to you concerning a show in which the incomparable Harlow Doyle was once a fairly prominent figure, it seemed fitting to utilize one of his more memorable lines as a greeting. I apologize if it caused any offense.
Adventures in Odyssey and I are the same age, to the month, I believe, and nearly to the day. My first memories include AiO and the anticipation of opening up our Chick-Fil-A kid’s meals to see which cassette tape would be inside. I couldn’t remember names then, so I would identify them by the color of the lettering on the white tape. Bright green meant “Family Vacation,” red meant “The Day Independence Came,” and purple meant “The Case of the Secret Room Parts I and II.” I remember when we bought our first album and watching my elder brothers give not-a-little effort to breaking the seal and revealing all the audio-goodness within (confession: We were a little disappointed to find out that it was possible to fit an entire episode on one side of the tape instead of splitting them up over both sides as in the Chick-Fil-A cassettes).
As a young child my listening time was pretty evenly split between AiO and the far inferior Patch the Pirate. As a grew and matured I realized that the two, while often promoting similar themes, were of vastly different qualities. Patch fell by the wayside, AiO maintained its place in my audio library. I consumed it. Our church had a small library and since my family was its primary customer our librarian accommodated us by purchasing AiO albums on a consistent basis. When our family would take a trip, AiO was our way to make the hours fly-by. My siblings could (and did) have conversations comprised entirely of AiO quotes.
During those early years I knew I loved Adventures in Odyssey, but I couldn’t tell you exactly why it was the premiere audio drama of its time. Now I can. In the world of AiO stories and characters mattered. While people didn’t always age properly in the show, they did grow and mature. They made mistakes and learned from them. They were real people, not walking metaphors and allegories.
It seemed as if the production team had no fear when it came to what stories, or kinds of stories, they would tell. From the beginning albums AiO dealt with weighty social themes without keeping them at arm’s length. Whit’s daughter is divorced, he lost a son in Vietnam, a character dies of cancer. These and other events create waves that last beyond any specific episode and impact characters throughout their lives on the show. Characters had honest-to-goodness lives in AiO, messy, real-life lives, and the show managed to walk the fine line of being real without being gratuitous or voyeuristic.
Who can forget episodes like “The Mortal Coil,” which expertly dealt with death and dying. Or “The Mysterious Stranger” in which we see a family torn apart by abuse and manipulation. Jimmy Barclay dabbled with the occult; another character struggled with late-life illiteracy. While AiO might have had some fluffy episodes, the show itself was made of tougher, better stuff. It wasn’t a light show that dealt with weighty topics; it was a weighty show that had a lighter side and lighter moments.
The show was never afraid to dabble in high-adventure, either. Mr. Whittaker was nothing less than a semi-retired swash-buckler. A decorated WWII veteran who spent time in covert operations. He kept countries from falling into ruin. His son was also involved with “the agency,” and carried on his dad’s adventurous ways. And who can forget the adventures that took us places like Hawaii, South America, the Middle East, and beyond. Odyssey wasn’t afraid to go places, to do things, and to strive for greatness. Where other audio dramas either went small and intimate or big and bold, AiO deftly moved back and forth as the whim hit and the story demanded.
Odyssey hit its peak with the album “Darkness Before Dawn.” AiO was a great show leading up to it with entries like “Passport to Adventure,” “Twists and Turns,” and “Wish You Were Here,” and it was great for a time afterwards, but nothing compares to the saga of Dr. Blackgaard’s return to Odyssey and the massive showdown for the town’s heart and soul. The word is often overused and under-appreciated, but that story arc deserves every inch and nuance of the descriptor “epic.” Having spent much of my life invested in the art of storytelling, I can tell you that twenty-four episode arc is as good as it gets (twenty-three if we discount “A Little Credit Please,” which really served as an “everything is fine in Odyssey” prologue before the action began. It’s a fine episode, it just suffers from being included in that album). No other drama, be it in the form of radio, film, television, or the written word, will be able to better it because it is simply perfect.
If “Darkness Before Dawn” was the pinnacle of the mountain, then “Back on the Air” until “Through Thick and Thin” was pretty much a return to the norm. The late Paul Herlinger, by most accounts, was as good as his predecessor, the late Hal Smith, in the role of Whit (as someone who grew up with both Andy Griffith and the original Whit, I prefer Hal Smith, but I know many people who were introduced to AiO during Herlinger’s run and prefer his iteration). The return of Whit, to the program and the town, restored the balance that had been upset by Blackgaard’s hijinks, and the show settled back into a nice rhythm.
“Days to Remember” was a solid album, reintroducing us to the Barclays who had long since moved away to Pokenberry Falls, and “Hidden Treasures” had its moments, but by the time the Andromeda saga began in “The Big Picture” the show started to stumble. The characters began to lose their sharpness and the flaws in logic and cracks in continuity that the show had previously overcome without effort began to make themselves apparent. Rodney is still in high school and bullying kids? Eugene vanishes and then, when he finally returns, isn’t really Eugene. Connie’s character has a great chance to move into adulthood, but the character can’t take the step and instead returns to teenager-esque purgatorial state. By the end of that saga, which was a welcome return to the craft of long-form storytelling and the arc certainly had its memorable moments, the show was wearing its age on its sleeve. And it wasn’t a good look.
Here’s the honest confession: I haven’t listened to a complete album since “Battle Lines.” I’ve caught episodes from several of the ones that followed and none of them really impressed. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t Odyssey. The stories and characters were not the usual brand of excellence. The show is not what it once was. While it has always been a family-oriented, kid-geared production, for years it was never just that. It was like Looney Tunes. Sure, it was a “kids show,” but it was also very much above that. Now, it is a kid’s show. Which, if that is all it wants to be today, then well and good. I hope it’s not, though. I hope it wants to be the showcase of storytelling it used to be.
So, here’s the end of it: the bold idea, the brave new course.
Find a conclusion and get there. Have Whit (now on his third voice-actor) die, or retire, or something. Anything. The cold hard truth is that Adventures in Odyssey has run its course and needs to finally hit the tape at the end of the marathon. Give the show, the town, the character, the ice cream emporium/Bible museum/place of wonder and excitement the ending and send-off it deserves.
Let the show have a final episode and one last curtain call.
And then start it again.
Reinvent Adventures in Odyssey with the same general concept, but with new twists on the characters. Make Whit younger, make Connie a guy and Eugene a girl. With the slate wiped clean you can rebuild and reinvent the mythology any way you like without worrying about past continuity. Give the show a clean start, a total rebirth. Tell bold stories again, go new places and create new challenges. Reinvent characters or make new ones altogether. Keep some things the same, but not everything.
Adventures in Odyssey can be great again and it needs to be great again, but I’m convinced that such a task will be nearly impossible if the show has to forge into the future while trying to hold on to the past. So cut the past loose. Whit is close to a hundred-years old, now. Let him go. Let them all go, and then start again. Finish the story that began twenty-seven years ago and then start a new one.
Tell us a new story, because we still love, want, and need you to.
Regards and much respect,