[A note on content: if you’re familiar with the series being discussed, you know that it covers some sensitive topics, but if you’re not, know that this piece will make reference to alcoholism, child abuse, sexual abuse, drug use, self-harm, and abortion, among other issues.]
“I just wanted to do good so you could love me even more, Dad.”
“Orel, I could never love you more. People only have a certain amount of love within them, and I’m afraid I have to divide mine up between at least a dozen people.”
In an era where American politics at every level is broken and disheartening, where our government dehumanizes the poor and the other, and where pundits quibble over the logistics of controversial ideas like “avoiding mass extinction", the explicitly political pop culture of even five to ten years ago seems dated. For example, others have written, better than I can, that The West Wing broke the brains of a generation of politicos that see politics as a game of witty repartee and out-logicking your opponents, rather than an ongoing material struggle with real human consequences. Parks and Recreation, while very funny and well-acted, presented an optimistic, can-do view of municipal government that doesn’t feel quite right here in Chicago, where our city councillors are currently all going down in a Viagra-addled haze. Veep gets a lot closer to what I’m looking for, but too many dark things are coming at us too quickly now, and its baroque insults aren’t as comforting as they used to be. All three of these aren’t even that old, but each feel out of date in their own way.
For more accurate depictions of how the political world works today, you have to move off of shows that are explicitly about politics and go to straight-out absurdist comedy, and Adult Swim had the best examples from the 2000s. The grotesque and hilarious work of Tim and Eric or PFFR ended up being a much better preparation for the power dynamics of 2019 than Aaron Sorkin’s headier stuff. One particular area of interest for me is the marriage of Christianity and conservative politics, which has always been pretty disheartening, and has now become so twisted and perverse that it’s hard to imagine any TV series or film capturing it accurately. But from 2005–2008, there was one little-watched claymation series that was twisted and perverse enough to prepare me for how politics and religion work together today: Dino Stamatopoulos' Emmy-nominated Moral Orel, now almost exactly a decade out from its cancellation, and a rare instance of comedy that has aged almost perfectly into the world of 2019.
In the middle of a lineup of stoner humor and Family Guy reruns, Moral Orel was an uniquely audacious piece of religious satire. Never breaking its 1950s-style paternal tone over 43 episodes, the show started with a simple formula: our cheerful claymation protagonist, 11-year-old Orel Puppington, would go to services at God’s Favorite Protestant Church in the tiny town of Moralton, try to live out the message of the sermon, and get it wrong to a horrifying extreme. This meant that the audience catching this after Aqua Teen Hunger Force every week found themselves watching:
- 11-year-old Orel becoming addicted to crack, in an attempt to be charitable to a drug dealer on his block
- Orel learning how to masturbate and sneaking into women’s homes to impregnate them with a pastry bag as they slept, so as not to use sex for non-procreative ends
- Orel reanimating the dead and unleashing an army of walking corpses on his town, in order to preserve God’s wonderful gift of life
- Orel getting a Prince Albert piercing on his penis, to solidify his hypothetical future marriage
- Orel drinking his own urine and eventually selling it as a sports drink, to avoid the sin of waste
If that all seems like a lot, well, you’re five episodes in with only 38 to go. Orel’s dad Clay, who was voiced by 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit, would eventually catch on to what was happening each week, give Orel a spanking in his study, and lecture him on some other oversight that just drove the hypocrisy home further (in the masturbation episode, Orel’s true sin, according to his father, is impregnating someone in a position other than missionary. Smoking crack is problematic because it is a “gateway to slang”). And then viewers would come back the following week to see what kind of trouble Orel will get into this time.
In late 2017, Roy Moore, former chief justice of Alabama and US Senate candidate, was credibly accused of repeatedly preying on teenage women throughout his career as a public servant. While Moore maintains his innocence, his own party basically conceded early on that all of this shit definitely happened; Republicans gave up on a “fake news” defense, but continued to give Moore full institutional support throughout his election after shrugging and saying “yeah he’s probably a pedophile”. One of the more notable defenses of Moore, though, was that we should cut him a break because Mary, the mother of Jesus, was also a teenage bride, so why should we judge other men attracted to teenage girls?
There’s plenty of hypocrisy you can call out in the party’s support of Moore, but the “Mary The Teenage Bride” bit stands out for its complete insanity. There are hypocrites and cynics, and then there are the people who missed the cynicism completely, heard that Mary was a teenage bride, and went with “oh ok, cool, we can all have teenage brides". They’re Orel Puppington-level true believers, making some truly horrible and unthinkable decisions in an earnest attempt to do right by the homily they just heard, up to and including vocal support of a pedophile in a Senate election.
While Orel is wide-eyed and earnest as he does these shocking things throughout the first two seasons of the show, he is still surrounded by the utterly broken adults of Moralton: his father is an alcoholic, the reverend is sexually frustrated, and the librarian is a authoritarian psychopath, as examples. Every adult in the series is consumed with misery, which cuts against Orel’s cheeriness, as well as the deliberately sunny animation and chipper music cues. Still, these other characters and their flaws were really just runner jokes when the show started; they wouldn’t take over the storyline until the later seasons.
“Doesn’t the Bible say it’s better to give than to receive?”
“Actually, no! It never, ever says that. Isn’t that wonderful?”
I have no idea how many people watched this show when it was on, but even by the standards of claymation shows in a 12:30am timeslot, I don’t think it was considered a “success". Adult Swim only released about a third of the show on DVD in the US; you can stream it on Hulu, although some episodes are out of production order because Adult Swim had to hold on to them a little longer and ask “are we really sure we want to air this?” (I bought it on iTunes when it originally came out, so if you don’t subscribe to Hulu, you can also just come over to our place and borrow my laptop.) The target audience was some sort of intersection of “theology students", “people with untreated mood disorders", and “amateur edgelord comedians", which from 2005-2008 included me and nobody else.
The expanded view of Moralton that we got in season 2 didn’t help grow the show’s audience, but it gave us more insight into the rest of the town. Moralton, to nobody’s suprise, is heavily segregated, and every household depends on outdated and misogynist gender roles to maintain order. But more importantly, everyone is obsessed with money and status. When the reverend preaches that God expects us to love Jesus more than money, it’s the only time he ever gets a real reaction, and it’s a church-wide gasp. When Orel competes in the cross-town praying bee, the entire city gambles on him to win, and carries him out of the auditorium on their shoulders chanting “money! money! money!” When Orel’s friend develops a crush on his teacher, she leverages it and extorts a child for expensive gifts.
Can Christians really be raised to believe this in earnest? Does education in the faith sometimes just turn into defense of class interests, especially if you’re educated with other mostly white, mostly privileged people? I don’t know if I can answer that, but two memories stand out from my time as that aforementioned theology student at a Catholic university:
- My freshman year, there was a guest speaker at Theology on Tap discussing the topic “Can Catholics Drive Bentleys?” and the answer was yes. In fairness to the speaker, I think the answer was closer to “yes, but there’s more to life than that", but folks the answer is still no.
- My sophomore year I was on a trip with the church choir I sang in, and we visited the home of one of the choir’s biggest donors in his massive house in Tampa Bay. The donor’s wife was a twin, her twin lived next door, and as she mentioned while making small talk, the two sisters called each other every morning to make sure they were dressed identically, all the way down to their underwear. You know, that normal thing rich people do with their wives.
As I’m writing this, Wyoming’s state legislature just voted to preserve capital punishment in the state. Some legislators made the usual tough-on-crime excuses for their votes, but one state senator, incredibly, offered that the death penalty was good enough for Jesus, so we should keep it because if you think about it, we really owe our salvation to capital punishment. This conceivably could just be an episode of the show, but if you extend the logic far enough, you get to “we need to have the death penalty ready to go if any messiahs show up", which is exactly what happens in the season 2 episode “Love". In the episode, Orel adopts a stray dog who becomes a dear friend to all of the children in Moralton and starts to break through the fog of oppression and greed hanging over the town. Obviously, the dog has got to go, and the adults rally together to kill it. As Clay says, “if he’s bringing that much love into the world? That dog is too dangerous, son.” Anything that threatens the existing order of Moralton has got to go, even if it’s a very not-subtle metaphor for Jesus.
“There’s a wrong way to believe in God?”
“Sure! Remember the lost 21st commandment: GET IT RIGHT.”
In season 2’s “The Lord’s Prayer", the Puppington family gets new neighbors, the Posabules, who are carbon copies of Orel’s family with two notable exceptions: first, they have a daughter, Christina, who shares Orel’s piety and their mutual crush on each other. And second, the family says “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" in the Lord’s Prayer, instead of the more traditional “trespasses” language. Because this is Moral Orel, this all but starts a blood feud between the two families, and the Posabules eventually move away and break up Orel and Christina’s forbidden love. Obviously, this feels like a far-fetched and extremely specific premise that could only happen in this particular show.
When I was attending my Catholic university, there was a Facebook group of “Students for Keeping the Masculine Pronoun When Referring to God" (it was one of many stupid Facebook groups at my school). This group wasn’t a joke, and it wasn’t just a question of barring gender-neutral pronouns from hymns to keep the scansion in place; it was a group of students, many of them classmates of mine, who believed God had to be a man — like, the biological makeup of a transcendent non-corporeal being had a gender — and that believing otherwise was borderline heresy.
It’s easy to take an “us versus them” mindset around religious issues, but that’s true all the way down to the most insignificant debates. Moral Orel knew it from episode one, and I had to learn it very quickly in college, between weird Facebook groups and shouting matches over which musical settings of “Lamb of God" are actually the wrong ones. The people of Moralton aren’t just relatively privileged; they are absolutely sure they’re right, all the time, about everything. Later in season 2, Orel wins the praying bee for his town when he stumbles upon Buddhist meditation, which his father disapproves of as it’s “the wrong way to pray", but which ultimately allows him to let go of his fear of God and Clay, in a significant turning point in the series.
Being privileged and thinking you’re right all the time is a dangerous combination. It clears the way for you to define yourself by excluding others who are in the wrong, and those “in the wrong" too often end up being those who don’t have the same privilege or status as you. And it also clears the way to some comically insane things, like hiring a low-flying aircraft to circle my school with a banner of an aborted fetus, which is what anti-choice activists did at my commencement when Notre Dame invited the newly-inaugurated President Obama to speak.
There’s obviously humor to be found in people this persnickety; having classmates who insisted that God definitely had to be a man was occasionally frustrating, but often hilarious. You kind of have to laugh at a fetus-plane flying over your campus. Ten years ago, that was how I saw people who took what I thought were stupid quibbles and arguments about their faith too seriously. It was just like Moral Orel: hilarious. Until, just like Moral Orel, it wasn’t hilarious anymore.
“It’s just that when he drinks, he changes.”
“He doesn’t change, Orel. That’s just his true nature coming out.”
Moral Orel is the only show on Adult Swim, and likely one of very few shows anywhere, to get cancelled because it got too sad. While it could have hit the season 1 formula indefinitely and eventually become a cult favorite with the r/atheism crowd, the show had bigger ambitions than that. Scott Adsit said in a 2008 interview with AV Club that the five-season plan was to create “the most realistic characters on television”, and that the plug got pulled because the show “was evolving into something a little more heartfelt [than what Adult Swim wanted]".
“A little more heartfelt” doesn’t do justice to the incredibly dark turn the series took at the end of season 2, when Clay drunkenly shot and permanently wounded Orel in a hunting accident. When the third and final season of the show started over a year later, I remember running back to my dorm room to catch the premiere, to find that the opening credits music had been replaced by the Mountain Goats' “No Children", in an attempt to make this series Even More Extremely My Shit.
Season 3 dealt with the ripple effects of the hunting accident, in 13 episodes that jumped around the timeline and shifted focus across all of the characters from previous episodes. The devastating premiere, “Numb", focused on Orel’s mother, trapped in her loveless marriage and coping through self-mutilation. As Stamatopoulos said in a 2015 interview with Vice, there was one laugh line in the entire script, but it otherwise played as a straight drama series with clay figurines. Again, this show aired in the same lineup as Harvey Birdman Attorney-at-Law.
Throughout the season, throwaway jokes from the beginning of the series turned into real human consequences, and everything built toward a confrontation between Orel and the monster that Clay became. Minor characters were revealed to be mentally ill abuse victims, or suffering from degenerative diseases. Affairs, both successful and attempted, blew up into violence. The 13 interlocked episodes covered a staggering amount of emotional ground and are still some of the most moving television I’ve ever seen. Still, the show became less about Orel and more about Clay and Moralton, both of which were draining themselves of hope.
Meanwhile, in our world, the fetus-banner activists decided that they could get what they want by electing a white supremacist president, loudly supporting him, and proudly proclaiming that they were fine with putting an accused rapist on the Supreme Court. Children were put into American concentration camps, and some of them died there, but according to the conservative religious thinkers of today, that’s okay because Jesus actually understood that refugees are breaking the law. The attorney general said we could persecute poor people and brown people, because St. Paul signed off on it. They all understand the hypocrisy and they didn’t care, because getting called out on hypocrisy Aaron-Sorkin-style doesn’t actually stop you from doing what you want if you have power. Instead, Moral-Orel-style, you just keep going and going into the most appalling interpretation of Christianity you can find to defend your bigotry and class interests, first as a farce, then as a tragedy. The show is not about Orel, it’s really about Clay, and the characters that I thought were comic relief turned out to be monsters.
“There’s a little bit of God in each of us. Just not enough to actually do any good."
I think there are ways forward, though. The quote above from Clay is meant as a very dark laugh line, but it speaks to something real: we have power to change things, but that power doesn’t mean a lot unless there’s a lot of us using it together. And it doesn’t mean a lot unless we actually acknowledge who we’re dealing with; the state senator who thinks capital punishment delivered humanity’s salvation, or the pundit who thinks we all deserve teenage brides, can’t be reasoned with or out-debated. They are not well-meaning misguided folks that you can find a middle ground with. However, they can be overcome if we’re smart about how we build our power, and if we’re serious about using it to win. The teachers who strike for better schools for their students get this, as do the prisoners who strike to call attention to their miserable conditions. The activists who sit in at a Congressional office to push for action on climate change are literally working to save civilization, and they have no time for rationalizing how God maybe likes what’s happening with the climate, actually. The wonderful activists here in Chicago fighting against educational inequality, community displacement, and police brutality aren’t trying to agree on a middle ground with their opponents, they’re trying to win a moral struggle that affects real people.
There are faith leaders who get this and are starting to reclaim the moral narrative from the far right (not in the Catholic church, where the entire hierarchy is in a state of very slow collapse, but that is nothing new in my church). The Poor People’s Campaign, started by Martin Luther King and continued by faith leaders today, is one good example of an organized effort that recognizes that a true faith-driven campaign will have to fight the evils of racism, poverty, militarism, and environmental degradation. And more importantly, it centers and is led by the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, all of those whom any actual reading of Christianity would tell us to prioritize.
The Magnificat of Luke’s gospel, of which I got to sing many different settings in that church choir that went to Florida, praises God for lifting up the lowly and satisfying the starving. The same passage also hints at what God is planning to do to the rich and powerful.
“You think God can’t see into the future? He can see WEEKS into the future!”
I don’t think my blood is supposed to boil this often. And as more dark things come at us every day, I don’t know how much longer my blood can keep boiling like this. But when I re-watched this show, things made a little more sense for a little bit of time. There’s so much more that I loved from this show that I didn’t cover above:
- The voice acting, especially by Adsit as Clay, delivering horrifying nihilism in flawless Father-Knows-Best voice
- The miniature 15-second films that Orel made during the end credits of each episode, with his own stop-motion camera
- Similarly, the names of most of the characters in the show, which were puns on claymation terms (Shapey, Bloberta, Doctor Potterswheel, Officer Papermouth, Reverend Putty, Nurse Bendy, Coach Stopframe, Alfred G. Diorama, Miss Sculptham, and of course, composer Ludwig Van Stopmotion-Animation-Name)
- The remarkable animation by Shadowmachine Films, in an era where most Adult Swim shows used static backgrounds and crappy copy-paste design to grind out as many episodes as possible; seasons 2 and 3 were each nominated for Emmys for outstanding achievement in animation
- Reverend Putty’s coffee mug, which reads “I Hate My Boss"; Putty, while lonely and sad, means well most of the time, and is one of few characters who actually learns and grows over the series
- The wrenching flashbacks to Clay’s childhood or the start of his marriage, or the ten-second flash-forward to one million years in the future, when Moralton has devoured the entire country
- Shapey, Orel’s feral younger brother, who is completely neglected by his parents, to the point where he is inadvertently swapped with another child and Orel is the only one who notices for twelve episodes
- Orel’s relationship with Stephanie, the heavily pierced and kindly owner of Moralton’s sex shop, who shocks Orel with her warmth (something he’s not used to seeing in Moralton) and who becomes a mother figure to him over the course of the series
- “God’s Chef", the aforementioned masturbation episode, which contains no swearing, violence, or depiction of sex acts, and is still maybe the most shocking episode of television I’ve ever seen
When I first watched the series as a sleep-deprived college student, I thought it was one of the five best shows I had seen in my life. In the past ten years I’ve watched countless more television shows, but I’ve also watched the relationship between Christianity and politics turn into what we have today, so now I may honestly have to move Moral Orel up the list.