Thursday, May 30, 2013

Adventures in Odyssey Review: The Best Small Town

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun stories with good morals
Cons: Not that focused on the kids; weak "Imagination Station Revisited"
The Bottom Line:
A couple weak shows
But this radio drama
Will still entertain

Odyssey Attempts to Win the Best Small Town Competition

I stopped regularly listening to Adventures in Odyssey years ago.  It's not that I got too old for this radio drama for kids.  Well, age wise I might be, but I still found the shows entertaining.  I just had a hard time finding a radio station I could get them on.  Anyway, I recently picked up their 50th collection of episodes, The Best Small Town, and listened to it on a road trip.  I had a blast reconnecting with these old friends.

If you aren't familiar with this show, Adventures in Odyssey is an old fashioned radio drama.  Produced by Christian organization Focus on the Family, these stories are set in the fictional small town of Odyssey.  They follow the exploits of John Avery Whitaker (also known as Whit), a grandfatherly figure who runs the local hang out, Whit's End.  Other adult main characters include Connie, who helps run Whit's End among other things, Eugene, the local brain, and Wooten the mailman.  Over the years, a series of kids have come and gone, usually spending a year of two growing up on the radio.  The episodes usually alternate between something the adult characters are dealing with and something the kids are facing.  The shows are targeted for ages 8-12, so they never get too adult in nature.  They are definitely Christian themed, but they rarely resort to preaching.

Unlike many collections, this one has a self-contained story that serves as an anchor for the twelve half hour episodes contained here.  A magazine has selected the town to be one of the contestants for their annual Best Small Town issue.  All the residents attempt to put their best foot forward to win.  While Bart Rathbone, owner of the local electronics store, attempts to make his store more rustic, Connie tries to get everyone to be overly nice to everyone.  But the contest might have unexpected results when a much loved member of the town might have to leave.

Meanwhile, a time capsule has been found from 100 years ago.  What will the residents find in it?  The Washington family is offered a chance to portray a family in a living history museum.  Will they survive their training?  Whit's son Jason becomes the target of a villain after the computer program Applesauce.  And local shock jock Cryin' Brian Dern might have found a way to close Whit's End down permanently.  Will he succeed?

As I mentioned, most of these shows manage to teach important truths from a Christian point of view without preaching.  They use the characters and story to get their points across.  And they are fun.  I was actually listening to the shows with my roommate, although fan from years gone by, and we both really got into them.  It doesn't matter your age; these are just plain good stories that will entertain you.

The acting is almost always great on this show, and this collection is no exception.  And the sound effects are perfect as well.  There's nothing to pull you out of the world of Odyssey.

Over the years, the kids seem to take a back seat to the adults, and I did feel that happened here.  I can only think of a couple episodes that really featured the kids that are currently on the show.  I still found the shows fun, but wish they'd go back to the balance they used to have when the show focused a bit more on the kids.

These episodes originally aired in 2008, the 20th anniversary of the show.  There are some nice nods to that history, most noticeably the resurrection of computer program Applesauce, something that caused quite a bit of trouble in town that second summer.  (I still remember being glued to the radio all summer to find out how that would play out.)  In another nice nod to years past, they brought back some old friends for the two part "The Triangled Web."  We get phone updates from Robin, Lawrence and Jared, but Jimmy, Curt, Jack, and Lucy actually come back for a visit.  You've got to understand, these are some of the kids who were regulars when I listened as a kid.  The plot of the episode wrapped up a bit too conveniently, but there were some great laughs along the way.  And I was smiling the entire time hearing these old friends again.

The episode concludes with the two part "The Imagination Station, Revisited."  Throughout the entire collection, Whit's been upgrading his signature invention, a super powered computer that acts like a time machine, allowing the kids to experience history and Bible stories for themselves.  When this invention was introduced in the second year of the show, we experienced the death and resurrection of Jesus.  They go about to that story for these two episodes, trying it from a different point of view.  I have listened to the original "Imagination Station" two parter just about every Easter for 20 years, and I couldn't help but compare them the entire time.  This one just doesn't have the dramatic punch the original did, and I hate what they did to Judas, trying to explain his betrayal.  I did like a few of the scenes, but for the most part they didn't have enough new to say to justify revisiting this story.  You just can't mess with a classic.

As a bonus, they also include a tribute to Walker Edmiston, one of their main voice actors who had recently died.  It's very touching as the cast talk about their time working with him.  It's just a few minutes long.  I was surprised to recognize so many of the miscellaneous voices he's done over the years.  I never would have guessed.

So, yes, there are a few missteps along the way.  But for the most part, The Best Small Town is another great collection of episodes that will please the many fans of Adventures in Odyssey.  

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