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Cathode Ray Mission: THE JELLYBEAN ODYSSEY/THE ODYSSEY (1992-1994)

CanTV expert Cameron Archer navigates the often inhospitable landscape of Canadian television for the CATHODE RAY MISSION, our regular blog column that highlights some of Canadian television’s most offbeat offerings.

CBC fielded a unique children’s television series in 1992. It was an ambitious, intelligently-written series — intellectual enough for adults to enjoy, yet action-oriented enough to keep viewer interest. It stood in diametrical opposition from fare like BABAR (CBC, 1989-91), THE RACCOONS (1985-91) and STREET CENTS (1989-2006.)

Also, it focused around a coma victim’s fantasy life.

That reads like the most obvious candidate for cancellation, doesn’t it? Usually, it would be, but THE ODYSSEY (CBC, 1992-94) is not the average CBC children’s series.

The Basic Formula

In the pilot, initially titled THE JELLYBEAN ODYSSEY, main character Jay Ziegler (Illya Woloshyn) offers his father’s telescope as a membership fee to join a club of kids that meets in a tree fort. The tree fort club’s bullying leader, Keith (Tony Sampson), denies Jay membership but takes the telescope anyways. With the aid of disabled friend Donna (Ashleigh Aston Moore d/b/a Ashley Rogers)–whom he snubbed in order to enter the tree-fort club–Jay attempts to retrieve his father’s telescope but instead falls out of the tree,  hits his head, and lapses into a coma.

It’s here that the show begins, in Jay’s mind (The Downworld). It’s a place reminiscent of THE LORD OF THE FLIES, and is inhabited by disparate groups of “clubs.” No one is ever allowed to age past 15. The oldest kids live in The Tower, and are led by Brad (Robert Wisden).

Jay teams up with Flash and Alpha — Keith and Donna’s Downworld analogues — to find a way for Jay to re-enter the Upworld (i.e., come out of his coma.) A subplot relates to the whereabouts of Jay’s missing father, who may or may not be dead.

The Weird Bits

Well, this is a show based around a coma victim. After moving the setup out of the way, which THE ODYSSEY neatly does in its pilot, THE ODYSSEY delves into sophisticated plots and heavy symbolism.

Jay even comes out of the coma after the second season, yet this doesn’t end his relationship with the Downworld. The show never tips its hand about the true nature of the Downworld. THE ODYSSEY ends its third season on a cliffhanger that, if I can spoil it a bit, knocks down a significant barrier.

Unfortunately, CBC never programmed THE ODYSSEY effectively. The first season straddled 1992-93. Two more seasons aired in the winter and fall of 1994. There was a year-long gap between the first and second seasons, at least according to tv.com.

Let’s Watch

The first half of the pilot, “The Fall.” The pilot mainly sets up the premise; it gets stranger and more symbolic after this.

 
…see what I mean? The first half of the second episode, “No Fair.” This episode introduces Finger (Mark Hildreth), who eventually becomes the main villain by the third season. Interestingly, Finger is introduced through a metaphorical flip-bird.

 

Cultural Legacy

Show creators Paul Vitols and Warren Easton have one listed credit on IMDb, THE ODYSSEY. Vitols goes into exhaustive detail on THE ODYSSEY, at one of his blogs. Unfortunately, like THE ODYSSEY, Vitols leaves his story on a cliffhanger.

If not for Vitols and Easton, Omni Film Productions Limited would not exist in its present form. “What’s Wrong with Neil?,” an installment of CBC regional drama anthology FAMILY PICTURES (1989-90), is Omni’s first dramatic effort. Before “What’s Wrong with Neil?,” Omni Film Productions dealt in documentaries. Omni is currently known for ARCTIC AIR (CBC, 2012- ), PRIMEVAL: NEW WORLD (SPACE, debut not yet set), PYROS (Discovery Canada, 2012- ), and ICE PILOTS NWT (History Television, 2009- ).

THE ODYSSEY has a complete-series DVD set, available only at Omni Film Productions’ website. THE ODYSSEY will likely never earn a commercial DVD/Blu-ray release, due to its age and obscurity. That’s a shame, as Canadian television rarely mounts shows where the overall premise takes unexpected, potentially show-destroying shifts between seasons. The best current example is BEING ERICA (CBC, 2009-2011), which wrings four seasons out of its Quantum Leap-meets-psychiatry-drama premise.

Mark Hildreth’s career is the most successful, post-THE ODYSSEY. Notably, Hildreth is Joshua on the remake of V (ABC, 2009-11), and Siroc on THE YOUNG BLADES (PAX, 2005.) Hildreth also plays Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff on WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN (Nicktoons, 2009), and Angel/Warren Worthington III on X-MEN: EVOLUTION (Kids’ WB, 2000-03.) Tony Sampson is best known as Eddy on ED, EDD N EDDY (Cartoon Network, 1999-2009.)

Ashleigh Aston Moore died December 11, 2007, of pneumonia and bronchitis. She was 26.

Summary

There is no way a show based around a coma victim’s imaginary(…?) exploits should be as good as THE ODYSSEY, let alone run long enough for the coma victim to come around. Its three-season run is testament to THE ODYSSEY‘s overall quality.

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  1. Djkahle says:

    Great write up, loved the show as a kid but was sad to see how the 2nd and 3rd seasons turned out 🙁

  2. Pufnstuff says:

    So… Mark Hildreth is the most successful Odyssey alum?

    Apparently you’ve never heard of Ryan Reynolds. (Macro)