Thursday, October 21, 2010

Moral Orel - Worship It

A long outstanding thing I wish to review is Moral Orel, a television series that ran for three seasons on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. It was created by Dino Stamatopoulos, a writer who worked on The Ben Stiller Show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and eventually MadTV. He created Moral Orel, a stop-motion animated series, that aired December 13th, 2005. It lasted until December 18, 2008, finishing on its third season. The show is about a religious town "Moralton" that lives in a state called "Statesota" in the center of the United States, hence replacing a bit of Kansas, Missouri, and some others. The show is an absurdist satire of religious groups and many of the views that their extremists hold. The show captures this by characters being overtly honest but horrifically wrong when explaining to the main character, Orel, their morality. Each season is a progression from one to the next, being able to start the scope small (on Orel, mostly), broaden it into the town more in season two, and season three is a beautiful completion of the series, finishing character arcs and story arcs that had been hinted at, or perhaps were also revealed and then completed within season three.

Season one focuses mostly on Orel, a young kid in Moralton trying to follow God and Jesus correctly. Many characters are influential on him throughout the season, especially his father, Clay Puppington, and the reverend, Rod Puddy. Each episode, Orel successfully takes each "moral" he's learned and presses it to its absurdly logical point, clearly misunderstanding the message and doing something terrible in the process. Then, at the end of the episode, his father, Clay, demands to see Orel in his study. There Orel receives corporal punishment from Clay, and reveals the true lesson that ends up being equally or more horrifying than Orel's original interpretation. The show easily and simply satirizes many aspects of organized religion, specifically "The Wasp" protestants, obviously exaggerating some of the qualities for the sake of humor. Still, the show has wonderful pathos elements hidden in it, captured especially in Clay, Orel's father. Though not a major character in season one, he often appears, at least in the end, to deliver the message. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about how much Clay hates his life, but delivers these hints matter-of-factly, as though they are merely what happens in life. The episode "Waste," meant to be the fourth episode of the series (adult swim aired many of them out of order), Clay refers to work as a "very hard, soul-numbing, joyless experience," calling adulthood "dead-end bleakness." We laugh because of the delivery, and how Orel looks up to his father, but inside we cringe for a moment, thinking of that concept of "growing up" and what it takes to be an adult, and how many adults turn out. "Maturity," the ninth episode of the season, captures this even greater, as we are now inching our way to the final episode of the season, where the show will transition. In the episode Clay talks about what it's like to be a "grown up." He says it's "doing things you hate doing," like "dealing with people that make you unhappy, being stressed about things you have no control over, and working soul-numbing jobs." He then explains that gradually, "as we endure these hardships and accept them as normal, that's when we've finally earned the right to get drunk and be emotionally distant from our families." The lines read here are only awful and depressing, but with the delivery of the show we laugh, but we laugh that laugh of horror and shock. It's funny, but it's funny because it can--and often is--very true, which is depressing. The show captures this pathos subtlety in the first season. At the end of season one, in "The Best Christmas Ever," Orel doesn't cause a major problem. Instead, something bad happens to him, and the show takes a small turn when it ends with Orel saying to god "I have faith in you," and begins praying, the camera zooming out and the episode ending, implying god does not answer.

Season two completes the transition that season one began, expanding the scope to Orel confusing morals and learning from his father to Orel being unable to reconcile with things going on in Moralton, and learning "lessons" from many of the people in the town. The first episode Orel is actually spanked not simply by Clay, but by the entire church congregation. Now, though Orel makes mistakes and causes problems, he is not able to necessarily agree with whatever the moral of the story is, or sometimes providing the moral himself. In "The Lord's Prayer," episode eight of season two, Orel meets new neighbors, the "Posabules." When invited over to the Puppington's, the family is a slightly different version of the already established family, except instead of another Orel, there is Christina, which inevitably sparks a love interest. When the Posabules reveal they say The Lord's Prayer differently, they are subsequently kicked out of the house, when Orel in protest says, "but I like Christina," Clay suggests to Orel, "why don't you trying being afraid of her instead?" The episode has a rather unhappy ending, where Christina moves away and Orel and she can no longer see each other. Two episodes later, in "Be Fruitful and Multiply," Orel is not even the main focus. Though he begins the plot line and helps further it along, the episode is centered more around Rod Puddy, the reverend, and the "Buried Treasures" clerk Stephanie. Orel ends up giving the moral at the end of the episode, which is learned by Reverend Puddy, who then no longer is upset that he has a daughter but never had sex, and instead is simply grateful he has a daughter. This episode shows that Moral Orel can have a happy ending, a decent lesson, rather than a lesson merely showing us how awful things can be, and what to perhaps avoid. Even so, the show still captures the absurdity of organized religion and how socially inept people can become when they remain inside the community all of their lives. It also expresses the possibility of hope, of being able to rise above it, which we all, of course, maintain for Orel. As the season progresses, Clay and Bloberta (Orel's parents) grow increasingly more resentful and spiteful towards each other, delivered usually in subtle and hilarious ways as when Bloberta asks how she looks and Clay responds, "the same way you always do." Also when Orel wakes up excitedly one morning he runs down stairs past Clay who is sleeping on the couch. In the two parter finale of season two, the show takes another transition. Unlike the subtle transition of season one to season two, where the show makes you laugh but applies the scope more broadly, "Nature" turns Moral Orel into a serious show. The beautiful irony is that the show was always serious, but with its ingenious delivery, it made us laugh at all those horrible things. Moral Orel never loses its ability to capture pathos, but in the episode "Nature," there is a long moment where things are solely serious and horrifying. Clay, who at this point has been drinking so thoroughly he's barely able to speak properly, suddenly loses his ability to hold up the facade of his life being "blight." He screams at his liquor bottle, and then goes on a drunken rant (somewhat incoherently) venting his frustrations, ending it with the poignant lines: "And you spend the whole rest of your life! With nowhere to go! And no one to be!" The first part ends here, and the second part picks up with things getting exceptionally worse, culminating with an accidentally shot Orel (by Clay who is now passed out), having to shoot a bear to keep himself alive. In the end of the episode, Orel asks Bloberta why she married Clay. She says, "why not?" Which makes us laugh in our horrified depression, and when Orel says that, "when he drinks, he changes," Bloberta responds, "Oh he doesn't change, Orel. That's just his true nature coming out." And then she exits. Orel says "nature" with a soul-crushed tone, and the season ends.

It's no doubt at this point that many people hate Clay. I was, incidentally, not one of them. Though his treatment of Orel was abominable and hateful, and there was no revelation for Clay, because his "nature" truly is that he's an awful person, I sympathized with him because his fears that he screamed drunkenly were at the core of the show, and it was about time for them to boil over the edges of the pot and scald our hands in surprise. The show is successfully saying: it's not so funny anymore, is it? And we definitely agree. The show makes sure of that. So it's no doubt that when season three would come out, the show was going to have to take on a bit of a different tone. Unfortunately, the show was going to be cancelled after season three, and Dino Stamatopoulos knew this. The fortunate side to this was that he knew it ahead of time, and was able to, as best he could, conclude the show beautifully in the final thirteen-episode season.

The final season begins with the episode "Numb." The beginning of the episode starts like any other, but plays the song "No Children" by The Mountain Goats, instead of the standard intro song. When the camera makes it down to the church, it suddenly turns off and moves towards the Puppington house. As it zooms in, we start in Orel's parent's bedroom, with Clay and Bloberta sleeping in separate beds with a small propped wall between them. Clay eventually gets up and says, "see you in two days," and leaves the room. Now, from Bloberta's perspective, we see Clay and Orel getting ready for the hunting trip. This episode (like many others), takes place during the same time as the Nature episodes last season. This is a moment to understand where Blboberta is in her life. The episode centers around her attempt at finding a connection, but each attempt ends in failure. In the end, we listen to the second half of "No Children" while from Clay's POV in the study, he glances at Dr. Potterswheel's handkerchief (Bloberta tried cheating on Clay with him), and then walking down the hall, past his now two illegitimate children, stopping and the song going quiet for a moment as he passes Orel's room. Again we hear Orel ask, "Why did you marry dad?" After Bloberta gives her answer, and explains it's just Clay's "true nature coming out," we see her exit Orel's room and momentarily break down. When she notices Clay, she grows cold and walks away into the bedroom. The song continues again, and we watch Clay walk into the bedroom, sit down in his bed, glance momentarily over towards Bloberta, and then scoots back on his bed. Clay is seeing his family fall apart from him, and Bloberta is looking for connection. The perspective has moved from Orel to the adults, specifically Clay and Bloberta. The next two episodes follow a more classic Moral Orel formula, though there is still more focus on the adults, and how in the episode "Innocence" they all attempt (to no avail) at avoiding giving Orel advice. Though the show maintains its comedic elements, including those Pathos moments, but the serious aspects have become significantly more heavy.

In episode four, "Alone," things grow even darker. We follow three characters: Nurse Bendy, Miss Sculptham (the teacher), and Miss Censordoll (the librarian). They are staying in the "Aloneford." Nurse Bendy is revealed to be somewhat mentally ill, talking to two teddy bears one "hubby" and the other "sonny." She walks around in overly domestic clothes and talks to them as if they are her family. In a long, sad prayer, we might laugh because of her use of language ("I feel thoughts of emotions"), but we're depressed because we realize no one looks at her as a person, and principal Fakey is using her for sex. We learn that Miss Sculptham was raped, pregnant from said rape, and had an abortion with a coat hanger. Newspaper clippings reveal she had an orgasm, that it was the only connection she ever had with a man, so she is torn between fear and excitement. Miss Censordoll is extremely lonely, but still insists on not speaking with her mother until nine o'clock. She has an angry, frustrated conversation over the phone, learning that she cannot have children because of an operation her mother had her have when she was a child. Nurse Bendy's subplot ends the worst, where she bumps a chair her "hubby" is on, and it falls over and lands on her butt, and she freaks out and starts crying. In the episode "Dumb," we learn that Joe, the bad kid at school, has a boring home life, and that Nurse Bendy is his mother. Through some funny and some dark moments, the episode ends with Nurse Bendy and Joe interested in living together, as mother and son, and it's actually a happy character arc. The episodes "Help" and "Passing" are flashback episodes for Bloberta and Clay, respectively. "Help" is about how Clay and Bloberta met, how they were both simply afraid of being alone, Bloberta especially, and they ended up together out of fear, not love. "Passing" is about Clay's messed up childhood, humanizing him for those who had, at this point, written him off because of "Nature." Clay is creepily close with his mother while she ignores her husband. She dies in a prank gone terribly wrong, and Clay's father blames him. Clay is told he's "not worth it" when his father was going to hit him, and we see a montage of Clay attempting to anger his father so that he'll get hit, and in that way he feels "worth it." We have now set up most of the characters to complete their character arcs.

"Closeface" expands on Stephanie as a character, learning that she likes girls, and a friend of hers in high school (Doughy's future mom) liked to "joke kiss" in order to freak people out. Eventually Stephanie asks about kissing sincerely, it gets awkward, and then her friend (Doughy's future mom) is laughing with Doughy's future dad, and Stephanie runs away, bitter and hurt. The main plot deals with Orel not knowing who to take to the "Arm's Length Dance." When Orel remembers Christina, he goes to visit her but she gets pulled away after a while. Stephanie insists that they must go to the dance, and takes Orel and helps him sneak Christina away for the dance. We complete two character arcs, Stephanie, who feels better because she helped someone take someone special to the dance (as well as has a nice conversation with her dad at the end of the episode), and Orel because he was able to be with Christina. Now that we more thoroughly understand all of these characters, the season finally stops taking place over previous times or flashbacks, and we start finishing the character arcs. The season ends with some rough episodes, including "Sundays," where Rod Puddy sleeps with a fat woman, calling out her friend's name in bed, the rift and awful relationship between the fat woman and the pretty divorced woman, the fat woman's ex-husband "Officer Papermouth," who over hears the sex, gets upset and shoots his daughter's teddy bear. The following morning is Sunday at church, and from a POV of Rod Puddy, he looks around for hope, finding only sad faces (all the plot lines pooling together and tying up here), finally looking at Orel, now with his broken leg, hopeless. In "Sacrifice," Clay, Rod, Officer Papermouth, and Dr. Potterswheel all get drunk on Easter at the "Forghetty's" Bar. Clay eventually goes on one of the most heart wrenching, darkest, depressing monologues I have ever heard, almost breaking down into tears, exposing--if only for a moment--that he is a human being, ruined from so many bad choices and happenings. At the end of the episode Shapey tugs on Bloberta's arm. Bloberta says, "not now Shapey, no milk." Shapey, instead of saying one of his classic lines "NO" "MINE" or "DRINK," he says, "When I'm thirsty it feels how I feel when I'm alone." Orel says, "Golly, thing sure have changed around here." The show notes exactly how serious it has gotten, how the scope has moved well beyond Orel and mere comical antics, that though the show can still make you laugh, it's starting to make you cry. Clay tries to anger all the men at the bar, but none of them end up hitting him, and Clay yells after them, finally ending up on his knees, and we can tell because of "Passing," he doesn't feel worth it.

In "Nesting," the second to last episode, we go back a bit in time to learn that Clay is, in fact, the mayor of Moralton. Miss Censordoll wants control of the town, and refers to "nesting" in an attempt to get to Orel. Orel becomes her tool to run for mayor against Clay, which then causes some tension between Orel and Clay who, as is implied, haven't talked for six months (all the episodes we've spent doing flashbacks, etc.) after the hunting trip. Eventually, Censordoll notices that Clay is still a grown mama's boy, and so she withdrawals from the race and instead moves in on Clay. There's a sad moment between Clay and Orel where Orel is being distant with his father, but then Clay refers to something horrifying in the mind, "truth." Orel actually comes around and honestly tells his father he doesn't know what Censordoll is up to, and Clay takes "it all back," and then to add insult to injury, "Oh, and I'm glad I shot you!" At the end of the episode Censordoll moves in on Clay, and they end up making out. In the final episode of the series, "Honor," Orel realizes he doesn't honor his father anymore, and he should, because it's one of the ten commandments. He talks to Rod Puddy who tells him to go to coach Stopframe (Clay's homosexual interest). Coach Stopframe's plotline has him currently depressed because he saw Clay making out with Censordoll. He spends time with Orel, having a pleasant Christmas while Clay watches jealously. Towards the end of the episode, Orel notices a picture of Clay and Danielle (Stopframe) together, and realizes that he likes Clay in a way that can't help him find a way to honor his father. Danielle has a great line, "In his own blundering way, your father made you. And that's honorable." Meanwhile, Clay gathers the family to go "caroling" at Danielle's apartment, and storms in furiously when Orel and Danielle answer the door. Here an awkward moment forms when Clay has a Freudian slip, insinuating that he wants Danielle. Eventually it grows extremely awkward when Clay gives up all pretenses and says, "I love you," over and over again to Danielle, accidentally stepping on their picture, revealing a crack down the center between them. The family leaves sadly, enters the home awkwardly as Reverend Rod Puddy's sermon over the radio can be heard, talking about family. We see Orel grow up in a moment, sitting down with Christina (his wife) and two kids and a cute puppy.

A resounding reaction to Moral Orel, especially its darkening season three horizon, was one of relief of a cancellation. Many people felt that Orel was treated to poorly throughout the series, becoming somewhat of a punching bag for the moral ineptitudes and fanaticisms of his father and the town. The moments that have been branded onto the memory of most viewers were those most depressing and awful: Nature part one and two, Clay revealing his truly awful nature and even shooting Orel; Nurse Bendy crying against a wall after even her teddy bear "hubby" touches her butt, and Bloberta momentarily breaking down in the hallway after talking to Orel, only to turn stolid and bitter at the sight of her husband. Dino Stamatopoulos believes that "Alone" was likely the reason Moral Orel was cancelled. It may in fact be remiss to deny how dark and serious the tone had become in the show at the end of season two and carried along the way through season three, but it would be as equally remiss to ignore those moments in the earlier seasons that managed to evade the viewer's mind because of the sugary frosting of comedy sat atop. Episodes like "Repression," where the arc is in Orel to repress his own guilt instead of helping Principal Fakey's dissolved marriage, or "Love" where the theme is that Orel's dog must be crucified and Bloberta lets Orel know dog's don't go to heaven. It would be equally derelict to forget those moments of hope that shined through in those darkest moments, the powerful Pathos of Moral Orel and its dichotomous hope within the bowels of despair. Moments like "Be Fruitful and Multiply" and "Closeface," where Rod Puddy and Stephanie become and show what a happy family can be, despite the differences and discord within the community of Moralton, similarly in "Dumb" between Joe and Nurse Bendy, showing why Joe acts out, why Nurse Bendy feels stupid and has no family, and both of them resolving their issues by coming together. One of the most resounding lines in the show comes from Joe, in "Dumb," when he says to Nurse Bendy: "Believe me, I know dumb, and everyone sure is, but not you." Dumb doesn't refer to intelligence, but to common sense, to knowing what's truly right rather than having gotten lost in the backwards logic of religious fanaticism, and Joe is definitely right. People like Clay, Bloberta, and Ms. Censordoll are completely lost to that extreme, but characters like Nurse Bendy, Joe, Rod, Stephanie, even Shapey, and obviously Orel are not lost, despite themselves and despite the town. They have found morality within themselves, connection with another human being, they are not alone like Clay, Censordoll, Bloberta, Principal Fakey, etc. And the show is able to capture both sides within Clay and Orel, who as children were just as innocent as the other, but where Clay was plagued with misfortune and unable to rise above it, becoming the awful father he is in the show, Orel is able to find comfort and connection, discover something great even in the worst of things. This is why "Honor" is the best finale for the show, where Orel is trying to find something honorable about his father, and Danielle says that "in his [Clay's] own blundering way, he made you [Orel]. And that's honorable." And though we see Clay's life completely fall apart at the end of the episode, we see what Orel will become, and how he pulls his life together. These two characters represent the extreme outcomes, and in the town you can find both the hope and the despair.

Two years off the air, Moral Orel still raises some eyebrows and pulls in fans and new viewers who had previously never heard of or seen the show. Currently, there is only one DVD release, a two-disc box set release on April 24, 2007. It contains the first fifteen episodes of the show, placed in production order (unlike having been aired out of order). The episodes are uncensored, and include special features including a director's cut of "God's Chef," the second episode of the series, deleted scenes, and a behind the scenes featurette. The show was nominated for six Annie Awards, three in 2008, including Best Voice Acting in an Animated Television Production for Scott Adsit, who does voices for Clay Puppington, Dr. Potterswheel, Doughy, and others. It won an Emmy in 2007 and 2009 for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation for the episodes "The Lord's Prayer" and "Sacrifice" respectively. Dino Stamatopoulos has moved on as a writer for Important Things with Demetri Martin and Mary Shelly's Frankenhole, and is also starring as an actor in the TV series Community as the character "Star-Burns." As far as plans for releasing the rest of the series on DVD, it is unknown. There are "Volume 2" DVDs for sale, but they are through Australia and not official through the production company, so they contain no special features and they do not list what episodes are included.

As an overall review, there is nothing perfect about the show, Moral Orel. It certainly has flaws. Though the show is a successful parody and satire upon extreme religious fanaticism, some episodes fell through, lacking any real poignancy to exaggerating and mocking these groups, becoming more a filler episode than a building block. Any show suffers from a few episodes like this, where I would include only a few from season two, running twenty episodes, feeling a little too long or verbose at times: "Geniusis," "Praying," "Orel's Movie Premiere," or "Elemental Orel," which, though hilarious episodes and have moments of clever satire, end up lacking in comparison to the strength of the show in episodes like "Maturity," "The Lord's Prayer," and "Be Fruitful and Multiply." Season three, however, is truly great work in its entirety and falls neatly together despite its flashbacks and diversion from Orel focus, naturally completing the series as well as its own seasonal arc, with perhaps "Grounded" and "Innocence" being the only two episodes to not entirely belong, but helping maintain the tone of going backwards in time and widening the focus to other characters. Because the show so ingeniously develops from season to season, and season three completing a show arc, seasonal arc, and numerous character arcs at once, Moral Orel gets a Worship It--and not solely for the irony. It's not to say the show is perfect, but the cleverness and depth of the show, all the while being able to make light of everything (including itself, like "Orel's Movie Premiere"), shows the ingenuity beyond many shows that simply do not have the ambition or gumption. Though not for every viewer, the show certainly has value simply as a creative masterpiece visually, thematically, and sensationally.

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