Moral Orel was created by Dino Stamatopoulos, a longtime comedy writer who’s maybe best known for his role as Starburns in Community.
He’s an interesting character, and I should probably leave it there. He’s definitely gotten up to all kinds of stuff, and I’m not sure we could exactly call him a role model, but if you ask me, Moral Orel is his magnum opus.
As I already mentioned, the show spends a lot of time taking aim at Christian fundamentalists, albeit in a pretty basic way.
The episodes follow a very simple formula, much like Davey and Goliath. In just 11 minutes, a Christian concept is introduced, then explained to Orel, then Orel misinterprets the concept to disastrous effect.
Aside from the very direct critique of Protestant ideology, it also uses that tropey technique where you take something we associate with childhood and innocence and you make it edgy.
If that’s all Moral Orel was, I wouldn’t have given it much of a look, but season 3 is the main attraction, and I think it can teach us how to let viewers sympathize with pretty reprehensible characters without giving those characters a pass.
So while seasons one and two stuck to that one formula with very little variation, season three breaks the mold.
In terms of the storyline, season three takes place slightly before, during, and well after a camping trip that Orel takes with his father, Clay Puppington. Bad stuff happens on the camping trip. No big spoilers, but yeah, it’s pretty significant.
Up to this point, the characters have been incredibly one dimensional, and it’s clearly an intentional move. Many of them seem to represent broader archetypes, and their names are just a little bit … on the nose?
Mr. Secondopinionson is a retired doctor.
Nurse Bendy is attractive, pretty dumb, and objectified by most men in town.
Agnes Sculptham is a school teacher.
Doughy Latchkey has parents who rarely pay attention to him.
I think you get the idea.
But as season three takes off, the characters get deeper, and we learn quite a bit about them in very little time.
In fact, all this character development happens so quickly, I thought about making this efficiency the subject of the piece.
One of the early episodes shows us a very different side of Orel’s mother, Bloberta Puppington (formerly Bloberta Hymentact).
She spends the episode seeking more and more violent sources of pain, because it takes something so extreme to make her feel anything at all.
Season three is just littered with this stuff. The show had had some pretty graphic moments before this, but these episodes go somewhere deeper, and they can be incredibly rough to watch.
It’s that combination of dark, dark subject matter and very genuine realism that we now associate with shows like Louie and Bojack Horseman, just, ya know, years earlier than either of those.
This brings us to an interesting conflict, one for screenwriters and viewers alike to grapple with, especially if this particularly dark comedy is going to stick around.
Let’s say a character is objectively bad, or at least that this character does objectively bad things. Is it possible for a show or movie to show sympathy for this character and explain their past traumas without also implicitly normalizing those actions and making them seem somehow acceptable?
Bojack gives us an easy example of this problem in action.
The show established its title character in a pretty stunning way. Bojack is a very believable character, especially in his badness. He uses alcohol and drugs to cope with past and present traumas, and in turn, he treats everyone in his life badly.
As the show went on, the realness of his character flaws became more and more prominent.
But throughout, there was always a risk that viewers would see Bojack as a sympathetic character, and he is a sympathetic character, up to a point.
But there’s this really fine line between sympathizing with a character and endorsing that character.
For one thing, we have a natural tendency to believe that the protagonist of a story is someone we’re supposed to root for, no matter what.
Even somewhat darker antiheroes are very often still likable and goodhearted. Think Batman (specifically Batman from the animated series).
Even Bojack aligned itself with shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men, therefore aligning Bojack himself with Tony Soprano and Don Draper.
In all of these cases, there’s a danger that viewers will come to admire the leads, regardless of what they’ve done.
In one of the final seasons of Bojack, the writers made it clear that they’d been grappling with this problem out in the real world.
During the premiere for Filbert, a detective show with a morally questionable lead, Diane explains that she doesn’t want the show to make assholes feel ok about being assholes. (I’m paraphrasing.)
With Bojack, there was always a risk of that happening. It’s no big surprise that real-life people struggling with substance abuse, who had indeed alienated themselves by treating their loved ones poorly, related to this character. And I think we can agree that, while there shouldn’t be any limits on the types of characters that can be shown in fiction, it’s not a good idea to deify characters who should not be looked up to.
But if every viewer is free to interpret fiction however they want, how can creatives prevent this from happening?
I kind of doubt there’s a surefire solution here, but I do think season three of Moral Orel comes really really close to finding the solution.
For Example: Passing
I’d like to talk about one episode in particular, and I will be spoiling this one, so uh, prepare yourself for that.
It’s called Passing, and it’s essentially the childhood backstory of Clay Puppington, Orel’s father.
What we already know about Clay is that he’s a devout Christian, at least in name, and he often twists Biblical lessons to fit his needs in the moment. He hits Orel as a form of discipline, and he drinks, a lot.
When we travel back to Clay’s childhood, we see that he’s especially close with his mother, who is extremely religious. She also has a strong aversion to any form of the word ‘dead.’
Clay’s father is bitter that his wife doesn’t pay attention to him anymore.
Anyway, after Clay makes an incredibly sad realization about his mother, he plays a prank where he pretends to be dead so that he can get even more attention.
This gives his mom a heart attack and she dies right there. So Clay and his dad are left alone, hating each other for their own reasons.
The only time Clay gets attention from his dad is when he gets hit, so he starts misbehaving just to get hit again, a gesture Clay now sees as affectionate and loving.
Oh, did I mention that the show gets dark?
So here we have our objectively bad character in Clay. He’s abusive, he’s an alcoholic, and he’s completely uninterested in his family and just about everything else.
Over the course of the show, there’s definitely a temptation to admire Clay. He’s unintentionally very funny and he’s definitely a fan favorite.
After watching the episode Passing, it would be very easy to feel sympathetic toward Clay and maybe even forgive what he does in the rest of the show.
But thankfully, the tone of the show, and specifically the tone of this episode, does a great job of making it clear that even if a character has found some kind of resolution or pleasure, it doesn’t mean that it’s a healthy resolution; it’s not healthy pleasure.
But to me, Clay’s most effective condemnation comes in a different episode, ‘Sacrifice.’
Sacrifice is definitely one of my favorite episodes of the series, mainly because it brings a lot of different storylines to a head.
And while I’ll avoid talking about all those storylines and how they get brought up in this episode, I would like to mention the climactic moment for Clay’s character.
With some of the central characters gathered in a bar, Clay just unleashes this wild rant about how pointless it is to pursue marriage and a family and how much he regrets his life choices.
As with any speech that’s delivered with passion, there’s a risk that a viewer might see the dialogue as some kind of grand statement, one that speaks to the misery of spending a life doing what you’re told.
And there’s some of that in there, but much more importantly, it confirms a lot of what we’ve already learned about Clay through the course of the series.
He’s angry, he’s insecure, and he feels trapped in his life. This isn’t a speech where the little guy stands up to The Man, it’s a ploy for attention, evidenced by what Clay does after the speech is over.
Everyone in the room looks ready to fight him, and Clay just sticks his face out, waiting to get hit, a clear reference to the backstory episode we just talked about. He’s just acting out again because he has deeply ingrained (positive) associations with the idea of punishment.
Clay isn’t a role model, and he’s not a hero for the tired and average, and the team behind Moral Orel made that very clear. The writing deals with all of these subjects carefully while also refusing to shy away from uncomfortable content. And we have to give a lot of credit to Scott Adsit, who, in addition to voicing Clay and several other characters, directed episodes of the show, contributed writing, and was a co-producer as well.
Clearly, the team had a strong vision of what they wanted the show to be, and they executed that vision extremely well.
So what are the takeaways here? Well, characters should be allowed to be whatever they need to be, and if a character does things we don’t want to condone, then the artists in question shouldn’t leave that part up to interpretation.
There’s more than one way to condemn a character’s actions, and it doesn’t need to be simplistic finger-wagging.
But aside from the more heady elements here, I just wanted to talk about this show. Especially before Rick and Morty, Adult Swim’s audience was pretty limited and insular, and I’m not sure Moral Orel ever really got the attention it deserved.
It’s also not that hard to find if you haven’t watched it yet. I’m not too surprised that big-name streaming services haven’t been pursuing this one.
And that’s it! Thanks for stopping by.
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