Moral Orel, the clay-animation Davey And Goliath parody that Dino Stamatopoulos never tires of informing interviewers isn’t a Davey And Goliath parody, ended its run on Adult Swim almost four years ago. This one-shot special, which serves as a sort of prequel to the series, offers some hints about where the show might have gone if it hadn’t been denied a fourth season, after having had its third-season order cut by seven episodes. I’m not sure how many people have been sitting on the edge of their seats all this time hoping for another half hour of Orel and company, but at least Stamatopoulos can take heart in knowing that his supreme creation has proven harder to kill off than the Starburns character he played on Community.
The title character of the series is a 12-year-old boy growing up in a God-fearing little town called Moralton in a non-existent state, Statesota. It’s basically Anytown, U.S.A., and it’s a really horrible place to raise your kids up. The central joke is that Orel, who tries to live his life according to his literal-minded understanding of religious scripture, never notices that he’s surrounded by hypocritical and mean-spirited adults, from the religious bullies who wield the power in town to his spineless, whimpering, alcoholic father. As satire of the danger inherent in unreflective devotion to religious doctrine, Moral Orel would be more focused if Orel sometimes got it right, in ways that made the hypocrites and weaklings around him uncomfortably aware of their own failings. But it’s the kind of show that aims for satire but is prepared to sacrifice meaning to outrageousness every time, so Orel is more likely to engage in hate crimes or dabble in necromancy, all in the name of what he thinks he’s learned in church.
The special begins with the four-year-old Orel hanging out with some slightly older kids, who amuse themselves by using his dimness and inability to accept reality to torture him; it may not be clear at what exact point his religious fixation graduated to full-blown mania, but apparently he’s always used denial as his best way of dealing with the misery of existence. Running home, he runs into the school coach as he’s exiting his parents’ bedroom, having just impregnated Orel’s mother. (“I was just showing your mom how naked you’ll be when you take showers after class.”) When Orel’s dad learns that she’s expecting Orel’s little brother, Shapey, he’s too distraught over the prospect of having another mouth to feed to wonder too hard about how it could have happened. Mom tries to soothe his jangled nerves by telling him that “two kids are easier to neglect than one.” In the end, Orel, who has been impressed to hear the story of Abraham and Isaac, has to be prevented from killing Shapey with a kitchen knife, to prove he loves God by giving God the chance to stay his hand. (Shapey is saved by the timely intervention of Orel’s grandfather, which Orel interprets as an act of divine intervention, with the Lord using what means are at hand.)
When Moral Orel first started popping up on the Adult Swim schedule, it had some of the random, WTF!? appeal of South Park when it was brand new, and with its impervious-to-reality hero, it seemed to be satirizing the sheer power that faith-based stupidity seemed to have in the age of George W. Bush. Orel may not have been a member of the reality-based community, but he was stronger than anyone else in town, and week after week, by a combination of force of will and not knowing any better, he remade the world around him to suit his purposes. The special shows Orel more physically vulnerable than he’d be later, and it also provides him with an adult figure who cares about him and whose head is screwed on straight: His grandfather, who appears to have fled to an isolated farm to get away from all the idiots. After Orel’s father dumps him on the farm for a while, Grandfather gets to like the kid and assures him that he has a good heart and that, all evidence to the contrary, he isn’t stupid.
In what turned out to be its final season, Moral Orel got heavier and more serious about Orel’s feelings toward his father and his need for an adult role model. If the show had continued, the plan was reportedly to have the grandfather move in with the family and become a regular presence in Orel's life, but for only so long, since Gramps had been diagnosed with terminal illness. It’s interesting to think about where the show might have gone with that, but the problem with Moral Orel was always that it was more “interesting” than funny. It was conceptually audacious, but even more conceptually muddled, and long before the end, Stamatopoulos and his writers were trying to make it carry far more weight that it was equipped to handle. The special is neither much better or worse than most of the regular episodes; it’s just twice as long. But it was kind of nice to know that it was out there for a while, just sitting there on the TV schedule where some unsuspecting person might trip over it, and it’s nice to know that, for one night, there’s the chance that some insomniac will start channel surfing and, beguiled by the sight of what looks like a homey little stop-motion animated kiddie show, suddenly behold Orel’s mom and Coach Stopframe doing the nasty.