By Adventures in Odyssey standards, "The Green Ring Conspiracy" is a taut, engaging, and refreshingly complex audio dramatization. The story drops us in a world that is always spiralling out of control; a world with seemingly more questions than answers; one in which the more answers given, the less we, and its characters, seem to know.
The opening scene of the series hints at this tangled, cacophonous world the characters are about to enter. As they travel through McCalister Park, Matthew asks Emily the simple question, "fact or urban legend?" It seems like an irrelevant question at first, but it serves to kick-start the show in an appropriate way. It is as if McCusker means to imply that the adventure we’re about to enter will be require some proper thinking and, more importantly, our own discernment. Fact or Urban Legend? Truth or deception?Is it always one or the other?
Let me first say that “The Green Ring Conspiracy” isn't perfect. This isn't the show's "masterpiece". Still, I do think it is a very strong episode/album. And though I preferred my experiences with “The Blackgaard Saga" and "The Novacom Saga", I am far from disappointed with "The Green Ring Conspiracy".
However, is it really fair to compare all three sagas? Probably not. I liked "The Green Ring Conspiracy" because it was so different from The Blackgaard Saga and the Novacom Saga. The differences are obvious. Firstly, "The Green Ring Conspiracy" was much more chronological in its storytelling. If "The Novacom Saga" was constructed like the jumbled, mosaic TV-show "Lost", then the world of "The Green Ring Conspiracy might be comparable to the more linear and more condensed"24". The Blackgaard saga pieced together seemingly random moments, from Chicago to Switzerland; different times, from early centuries in the Underground Railroad to a futuristic journey in the Imagination Station; and different characters, from the mysterious Richard Maxwell to the curmudgeon Bernard Walton. Random pieces and people connected. Likewise, the Novacom Saga enabled the listener to piece together seemingly random events, from Alaska to Africa, and from large businesses meetings of CEOS in the past, to the secret meetings of young Wonderworld members in the present. The world of Green Ring Conspiracy, however, felt smaller in scale, creating an intimate, and more realistic, setting. All of this to say, it tried to be its own thing, and succeeded.
Let’s also not forget that while the Blackgaard and Novacom sagas used characters we had years to grow to love, "The Green Ring Conspiracy" had the difficult task of making its audience care quickly about characters no one really knew about only two years ago. And, to my pleasant surprise, they succeeded in doing so. What makes this album such a great addition to the series was that it helped me care about characters such as Jay, Emily Jones, Matthew Parker, Buck, Monty, Mr. Skint, Katrina, and others. And now I'm itching to find out what happens to each of them in the near future.
I learned that, oftentimes, if the stories are good, fans are more likely to forgive large character turnovers entirely. After listening to “The Green Rig Conspiracy”, I viewed the show’s newest regulars in a different way. I automatically accepted characters such as Jay, Emily, and Matthew as the show's usual citizens and in my mind pretended they had always been around. I wonder if the same will happen here as what happened with "The Novacom Saga", which also came not long after another period of change, and brighten the shows that came before it. Though I initially disliked the albums "Signed, Sealed, and Committed" and "Twists and Turns", they eventually became two of my favourite albums because their newer characters became so well developed later on throughout the show. In the same way, I wonder whether I'll one day look back at "Take it From the Top" and "Cause and Effect" in a different light, too.
This is precisely the spark the show needed. Adventures in Odyssey desperately needed a good story to rally all of its characters around. If the producers want listeners to care about Barrett, then don't have him angrily searching for his Vermanoids games for twenty minutes; don't have Emily Jones acting as a stuck-up Cupid in "When You're Right, You're Right"; don't have Olivia Parker be in a melancholic mood in "Finish What You..." These are all uninteresting story lines for any listener. In "The Green Ring Conspiracy", I pretty much liked every character introduced since the recent “reboot”—yes, even Emily Jones. Not only were these characters properly used, but many were given rich storylines as well as a decent amount of intelligent dialogue.
As much as this season did a terrific job with its newest characters, I can't quite say the same about its regular characters. Indeed, here are the complaints— few as they may be—that you’ve been waiting for…
Firstly, although I adored Jason's return, I wonder how consistent the writers have been with his character. Up until "Exit", Jason was a missionary. Ever since then, he's been a "one-two-three": i.e: a one note character, a two-dimensional super hero that shows up whenever the story needs someone to do a fancy cartwheel, and a third-wheel for nearly every other character. It’s a shame. As most fans may remember, what made Jason Whittaker such a strong, memorable character wasn't his run-ins with villains, or his Indiana Jones-like persona, but his need to suppress his inner recklessness. Jason needed to tame his inner recklessness when he rashly attempted to install video-games, transform the "Imagination Station" into a healing center, get duped by Monica Stone in Alaska, rashly decide to elope with Tasha, attempt to baptize Malachi in Trickle Lake, or miserably try to fix things in "Shining Armor". And shown most strongly in "Shining Armor", we see how Jason's inability to see straight when his own emotions got in the way made him such a fascinating character. Whatever happened to his missionary gig? Why has Jason returned to being Agent Ethan Hunt in "No Way Out", "The Top Floor", and the atrocious "Accidental Dilemma"? More importantly, whatever happened to the conflicted Jason who once had to wrestle with his inner demons?
I didn't know whether this was a side of Jason that McCusker was referring to in the show's final scene. In it, Whit cautions his son not to "get lost in the labyrinth". I wish Whit had said more to his son, asking him, "What are you doing with your life?", "When are you going to settle?", "How is your relationship with God?". Although a long heart to heart talk between Whit and Jason might have disrupted the show's momentum--the story needed to come to a timely end, after all-- I would have preferred that the characters vocalized some of these biblical themes instead of having Chris try to awkwardly tack stuff on at the end of the episode. I am not suggesting the characters weren't spiritual enough, but presenting more spiritual discussions could have developed some of the show’s overall themes, and its characters, further. It would have been nice for some of these characters to talk more, and therefore, to grow.
After all, several moments in "The Green Ring Conspiracy" were surprisingly deep. Since there were so many characters, slightly more interesting themes or ideas were downplayed, or underdeveloped. There were several moments in which I wished one issue was explored further but which was pushed aside for another. The show’s subplot featuring Connie's art courses, for instance, went over my head. I didn't really understand how it fit in with the rest of the album, nor did I really understand the point McCusker was trying to get across in those scenes.
Throughout my years in University I was taught the opposite of what was taught in these episodes, I think. As I read the works of authors such as Timothy Findley and Margaret Atwood, I wondered why I should be studying some of their literature in a Christian University. Other students would wonder the same, and there would always be that one who would raise their hand and ask: "why are we learning these things?" The professors, often annoyed by this question, would typically give an answer along these lines:
"Because, as St. Ambrose stated, ‘all truth is God's truth’, works of literature that do not articulate specific Christian ideas can express ideas that are congruent with our Christianity. The plays of Shakespeare seldom reveal explicit Christian doctrine about nonetheless powerfully convey important truths about human interactions in their narratives. We can learn much about love from Romeo and Juliet, about revenge from Macbeth and about forgiveness from King Lear. To read such works allows us to grow as Christians." (Gallagher, "Literature through the Eyes of Faith", 131)
This response sounds a bit like the one Dr. Trask gave to Connie, doesn’t it? He says, “We are dedicated to finding the beauty of God in nature, art, within ourselves. And in doing that, we get to know Him better." Again, in a later scene in which Connie seems uncomfortable with studying Salvador Dali's Tarot cards, Trask's response is "As the creator of all, God is within all". In other words, All Truth is God’s Truth. The creepy music and overall tense mood of the scene automatically paints Trask as some sort of villain, but this is a very real sort of attitude several Christian professors have, and a real issue many students will have to deal with once they enter into a Liberal Arts School.
There are many interesting questions raised throughout these scenes, but few answers. To our surprise, Connie doesn't even seek out the council of Whit. Confused, I had someone else listen to these scenes, and they too found them incomplete. I was ultimately disappointed with the open-endedness of this complex subject matter, even though I knew how difficult it would be to explore completely. In my mind, this issue was too important—for both Connie and the audience—to leave open ended, or to poorly resolve by having Dr. Trask getting arrested. If this album meant to be about “recognizing deception”, then I would have enjoyed a better understanding of, as a Christian, how and when I should appreciate an artist’s work (in both literature and art). Should Christians watch/read/listen/study everything as long as they view it through a Christian lens? When should they and when shouldn’t they? Should they abstain from the non-religious works altogether? Tough questions. No answers.
And while Connie and Jason’s journeys seem incomplete, there were so many other little interesting relationships and storylines to care about. I wish I had more time to write a lengthier analysis of each one: Buck and Mr. Skint complex relationship is certainly one of Adventures Odyssey's most fascinating relationship to date; Audrey Wasilewski’s Katrina suddenly became more interesting by finding out she had a “history” of becoming obsessed with her students; Jay's complex relationship with his Uncle/father-figure Wally Haggler made both characters way more interesting since their appearance in ‘A Thankstaking Story’; Detective Poolhaus’ sexist and pushy relationship with everyone he came into contact with made him more interesting than your average Cop; Connie's odd and offbeat friendship with Penny Wise created such an interesting friendship to follow; Penny’s even odder romance with Wooton Bassett, though pointless, was often humorous. What’s interesting is that McCusker uses all these relationships and revolves them thematically around discernment—every single one. Every character comes to a point where they learn that the other may not be who they initially seem to be. I like the way AIOwiki puts it: “New friends may not be who they seem. Old friends have secrets they must keep. Deception and double-crosses are the order of the day. Trust, loyalty, and faith are all put to the test.” We are all complex creations of Christ, after all. We are made even more complex with sin. It was nice that Paul McCusker was able to bring out such complexity in these characters.
I understand how difficult it must have been for McCusker to keep track of when and where each character was supposed to be. I also came to realize that the show's large cast of characters was also the album's greatness weakness. I thought that there were far too many scenes to simply remind us who knew what and where so-and-so was going and why. This, at times, affected the dialog in a negative way. Characters had the habit of stating the obvious: For instance:
[After Buck destroys the cell phone]
Eugene: "I wonder why Buck tried to destroy it..."
Whit: "To keep us from seeing what's on it!"
Well, duh, Mr. Whittaker. Ya think? On the whole, I think McCusker does a fairly good job at having characters rephrase things in order to summarize what has happened--this is especially helpful for younger listeners. For older listeners, however, a few scenes and pieces of dialogue come across as slightly redundant. Often, the audience knew what was happening, but the characters felt the need to take that extra time to summarize what they were doing. Though McCusker adequately manoeuvres characters throughout this labyrinth, because of the enormous cast of characters, the story never seems progressed as quickly as I wanted it to.
Regardless, I’ll admit many of the conversations were quite well-written, and even sometimes brilliant: "No! You Call me as I snap out of this mood!", "loudly exclaimed euphemisms escape me". (1: 10.15) "Not that's not nice, not at all”. I chuckled during each of these lines—which were all in the first episode. For the most part, the characters had well written conversations instead of stale punch-lines.
The characters introduced in "The Green Ring Conspiracy" were, for me, either hit-or-miss. I liked Monty (a twenty year absence makes him new, OK?) Out of all the newest characters, I thought he had the most promise for future episodes. I hope he isn't restricted to this brief appearance. Finding out that he had returned to Odyssey in part one was one of the greatest surprises of Adventures, and I cannot be thankful enough that he was played by the same actor he was 20 years ago. It is clear that though show is about the many characters that frequent the town of Odyssey, the show has also become mostly about the Whittaker dynasty. Many episodes, from "A Member of the Family" and "Memories of Jerry" to "Chains" and "Silent Night" have explored this family’s expansion, growth, and overall rich history. Whit's absence to the Middle East have showed that the show was less about the Whit himself, but how God has used the Whittaker name to help Odyssey. I think if Whit ever had a reason to leave Odyssey (which seems unlikely), many fans wouldn’t object to welcoming younger generations of Whittakers, Monty and Jason. If the character of Whit ever died, at least his influence, and legacy, wouldn't.
Detective Tanner, who I found to be the show's weakest character, entered the show simply to distract listeners from the real issues and mumble something about having security clearance. Yup, she was boring. She grew less and less important since her entrance onto the scene, and then disappeared altogether. I still wonder how necessary she was. The same went with Dirk Biggs. I first expected Paul McCusker to do a lot more with these two characters, but both seemed written off a little early and/or were simply underused.
Professor Trask, on the other hand, was ingenious casting. Here is a villain who not only sounds like Mr. Whittaker (that is, Stojka's "Whittaker"), but blends in perfectly as that realistic, trustworthy, and wise academic. The villains throughout this album ranged from perfectly realistic (Dr. Trask), to downright comical (Uncle Archy), to somewhere in between (Mr. Skint). Although I prefer more realistic villains, I’ll admit that I enjoyed how McCusker created such a colourful cast of villainous characters in this album. I'm glad that for an album that focuses on "recognizing deception", there were characters who actually deceived both the characters and the audience. Historically, the show typically portrayed Christians as the “good-guys” and the non-Christians as villains. Aside from a few instances, we never really had a self-proclaimed Christian and mentor who turned out to be so “evil”...and that, to me, is what made the character of Professor Trask so good.
And while Professor Trask was certainly a highlight of the album, he doesn't come close to being as fleshed out as the twisted relationship between Buck Oliver and Mr. Skint. I’ll admit, I did particularly like Mr. Skint at the beginning. I thought the lines he was given, and his performance, was strange. Many of you probably remember this one:
"Oh-oh-oh-oh! Oh, And you're my cat! Aren't you my lad? Meeee-OW! Soft and quiet!"
"It isn't quite Shakespeare's Henry's the Fifth", that’s for sure. Honestly, it took me a while to get used to Mr. Skint as a character, and it wasn't until my second listen through that I really started to appreciate how his character was behaving throughout the album. Sure, he may have seemed sometimes oddball-ish, however, his performance really tricked me into believing that he would be irrelevant to the series. His relationship with Buck Oliver was extremely fascinating to follow throughout the course of the album; these actors played off one another well. I wonder how many interesting future storylines can be wrung out of Buck Oliver. Though he lacks a certain likeability/charisma, I think he’ll be a welcomed addition to the series.
Of course, an entire article could be written about what will happen next on “Adventures in Odyssey”; however, here are a few questions on my mind right now: Will Buck Oliver make his way back into becoming an employee at Whit's End? If so, can the writers continue to develop his character fully, and not have him trail out of the show like Aubrey and Nick did? Should Katrina and Eugene “adopt” Buck Oliver? Would this be a perfect way to keep these two older characters interesting? Should Monty simply disappear or become a vital part of the show? And, if he remained, would he merely the same character Jason was 15 years ago? Might he be a better fit for Connie than Mitch was? Should there be an awesome action/adventure episode about Jason Whittaker catching up with Mr. Skint sometime soon? More importantly, will all of this eventually connect to the Chairman?
One of the best decisions Paul McCusker made with "The Green Conspiracy" was just leaving the album open ended, without resolving everything, or giving every storyline closure. Ever since the hiatus, many fans have wondered why—if the show has largely abandoned many of its story-lines and characters—they still listen to the “Adventures in Odyssey”. However, the success of “The Green Ring Conspiracy” is not only due to its fun story but also to the rich relationships between fabulous characters. I cannot praise the season enough for this. There has never been a better moment time to use Whit’s famous line: “The Best is Yet to Come”.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Note: As one more note, as much as I enjoyed my experience with "The Green Ring Conspiracy", I was a little annoyed by how this series was promoted/advertised (or maybe I feel stupid for being tricked). It's one thing for Paul McCusker and Dave Arnold to mislead audiences by providing "fake hints", but it's another thing if those hints are more exciting than what the real surprise turn out to be: Jason and Monty's return. Yes, I was genuinely surprised by the latter revelation, but many fans were lead to believe that Richard Maxwell would be returning in this album. And so, the listener's happiness relies heavily on whether you prefer to be genuinely surprised or whether you would rather be given what you want. There's a sad sense that Richard Maxwell is still trudging down that—to use Hoobler's famous metaphor—"long, dark hall". That said, I admire this album for pulling off one of the biggest surprises in Adventure in Odyssey history (i.e. Monty’s return) and, in a few years, I'll admire it for pulling off one of the greatest deceptions, too.