If you’re already aware of Moral Orel, you probably can guess what I think of it.
If you’re not, Moral Orel is a dark comedy claymation or puppetry or stop motion or whatever TV series made up of ten-minute long episodes that focus (mostly) on the character of Orel Puppington, a member of the Puppington family. Set in Moralton, Statesota, it’s a pastiche parody of 50s and 60s sitcoms where the benevolent patriarch could always be relied upon to sort out whatever chicanery our protagonist got up to that week.
It is also a triumphant depiction of a kind of politeness we don’t usually get.
Content Warning! This series features deep breath religious fundamentalism, child abuse (standard/accepted like paddling and spanking, neglect), gun violence, troubling behaviour unbecoming a minor, racism, sexual assault (adult and child), divorce, emotional abuse (spousal familial), existentional horror, religious existential horror and… I think that’s it? But what more is there.
If you’re wondering ‘hey, with that list, do you really want to talk about it?’ and yeah. Because not talking about it would be polite.
Moral Orel is a peculiar institution of American media, which commits the dreadful sin of being openly honest. It’s Christian Media, which is to say, media about Christian American culture, but unlike most of the media of that type, it actually says it and admits it. This is a cultural space in which there’s a large audience and media that gets made has to be palatable to that audience, but which mentioning that audience is a blatant problem.
So you have whole networks of media production, stuff like the Hallmark ouvre of movies and reality TV shows out of Utah and ‘Strong Values’ conservative music performers and ‘no rap,’ radio stations that are all very much marking themselves as belonging to this space but never saying what they are.
Because to say so would be impolite.
Politeness is a brick in this situation; politeness is why you don’t do anything about the abuse you hear from your neighbour’s place, why nobody else does anything about the problem they can all see, because it would be impolite. It would make a fuss. It’s one of the most British things about American culture.
What Moral Orel does is, because it’s not wanting to cater to these spaces, is name it and make it clear what it is. It is impolite enough to make the point that this is about American Protestant Christianity, about the many different ‘rules’ it has that aren’t from the Bible at all, but which serve to control and marginalise the people who live under that system, all while telling them that they’re happy. It does this through the very honest, very sincere expression of our protagonist, Orel.
Orel is just a good kid. He’s a nice boy who has all the reasons to fit in in his society. He attends church and he pays attention and he listens to what the preacher says and he tries to live by it, because that’s what he’s been told is the right thing to do. He lives the lessons he learns in church, and those lessons are the core of the comedy of each episode. Whether it’s about raising the dead because they’re rejecting God’s gift of life because he misunderstood veiled talk about pro-life politics, or because he’s trying to organise a way to literally bathe in his friend’s blood in a consensual and morally acceptable way, Orel is always doing what he does from a wholly sincere position.
There is nothing, in the context of being a member of his church and race that presents Orel with anything but privilege. His family has money (even if his dad is constantly complaining about his job he hates), he has a home, his home has its own space, he has things that support his needs and wants and he’s never shown struggling for things he wants or needs for his projects. This is important: You need to see how Orel, who is doing everything right, and is in a position to be the beneficiary of the system he’s growing up into, is still the person guaranteed to be hurt by it.
Because the system breaks you.
It breaks you a little, as you learn about its hypocrisies, or it breaks you a lot, as you deal with the traumas that it inflicts on you. And you’re left with the lesson that it’s not nice to talk about your problems, because that’s impolite, that’s not Christ-like, and you have to take it and swallow it down and the pain inside you is resolved by being one with Christ. By connecting to him and being better at being a Christian. Every devout convert is holding together a scream, every family is miserable in its own way, but convinced that they’re all just one prayer away from fixing it.
The lived experience of the fundamentalist is to either sublimate the cruelty you lived and find people to inflict it on, or to delude yourself into rendering the impossibilities and hypocrisy as truths. Is that clear? I am arguing that this entire lifestyle requires you to lie or be cruel or both.
The series is really well made, it brings out an emotional honesty it’s hard to not to appreciate. You get a ten minute episode, a bit of a gag, some comedy around a kid misunderstanding Christianity, some awkwardness of adults around them misunderstanding things, and then a conclusion and a punchline about what an asshole Orel’s abusive dad is.
And nobody does anything about it after that because it’d be impolite. And that is funny in its own right. Even the people who are mad or hurt or embarrassed don’t share that or fix that, and the only people who know to be honest to one another are the little kids.
The music is good, with particular attention paid to how this series uses the specific refrain of No Children, by the Mountain Goats. I feel like this is the source for a lot of people noticing that song, but I don’t mind, because it’s not like I learned it somewhere special. I mean I learned it from a tumblr about newspaper cartoons talking about Ted Cruz vs Donald Trump, and well, we see how that went.
Some parts of Moral Orel don’t hold together well. A whole episode is dedicated to benevolent mindsets justifying segregation and racism, then jerks to a halt to point out that there’s no reason to do it if you don’t benefit from it. It’s not that it’s a terrible joke or anything but if you watch the episode going ‘oh, is something else going to happen here?’ and the answer is, nah, not really.
There are three seasons of Moral Orel. The first season is your orientation period; they test out the characters, the basic joke structure and the status quo of the world. The mindset of Moralton probably seems pretty alien to most folks who didn’t come by the damage honestly, so these episodes do the job of getting you comfortable with knowing what to expect. It’s important to get you familiar with a joke, before they subvert it, and season one’s conclusion is the first subversion. You know, here’s a Christian lesson expressed by a fallible human in a literal, judgmental community, here’s how an earnest kid can take that to a logical conclusion that nonetheless has disastrous results, reset with a spanking joke.
Then, you have a second season, which is a bit more of a simmer. The narrative gets more of a continuity to it, the characters’ relationships build out and connect to one another, and the show starts to reference its own snap-back continuity. The series finally gets to a point where it’s teetering on the edge of a major change, gearing up for a return to its snap-back continuity… and then the whole thing tumbles downhill. The conclusion of the second season makes it clear that the snap-back narrative was a byproduct of people making choices, that it wasn’t necessarily what you thought it was, and now, we’re into the third season.
The third season is a broken mirror, swirling down into a drain. It’s told in multiple stories transpiring at different times, fleshing out the town and showing you the whole of the town as they are focused through the events of Orel’s life. And then, it collapses, and it ends and the whole series ends. You wonder maybe if there’s any way things can work out okay, and the series tells you that yeah, it does.
But it never tells you how.
Because it can’t tell you how.
There’s an honesty to Moral Orel, the kind of thing that makes people go ‘well, the author meant’ and I don’t fucking know about that. I don’t know if there’s a reality, a lived experience that legitimises this. What I know is that there’s a lot to say about the tight, closed community of racist, bigoted communities like this that means that even if you’re telling a joke, even if you try to make up something extreme and ridiculous it doesn’t sound that strange compared to the real thing.
There is a story I sometimes share – in private, off the blog, because it’s horrifying – about what life was like, in the cult. In Moral Orel, there are two different characters who are I am sure, meant to be preposterous over-the-top caricatures of the experience, and who both, I feel like I’ve met. I don’t know anyone who had her womb removed when she was an infant.
But I’ve met someone whose level of unpleasantness approaches it. I’ve met the woman she’s meant to be impersonating – women whose communities deprived them of power and agency and filled them with hate and told them that faith was their weapon. Women who would make things happen while protesting that they had no power, because that would be unchristlike. Women who inexorably forced you to respond to a cruelty that was, as always, polite.
We called one of them The Perfumed Steamroller.
I couldn’t appreciate the way that the preacher was shown to be kinda a nice guy, that he was reasonably tolerant, that he could be kind. That one stood apart from me. Like, dude has a family and it’s positive and he doesn’t exploit his position, which, y’know, that’s… weird. Like somehow the story thinks it’d be too easy to make the kind of guy who lies to children a selfish asshole.
Moral Orel has a lot of other incidental things about these communities. Did you know there’s a trans character in the series? I think there is. I’m pretty sure there is. But I also think that she’s handled in exactly the way these things could be handled in these communities – with an uneasy silence, and absolutely no words used to describe her.
The things are there. People are people. You can’t get rid of them.
Not without a violence we can’t do, not… politely.
But you can make talking about them a sin. You can make the words themselves for explaining them unsuable. The language of the identity is made into swears, and so to, is being made a blasphemy.
I didn’t laugh a lot while I watched Moral Orel but I hope you can.