The Fall Festival is over? I guess that means it’s time for Whit’s family to come over for Christmas vacation. It’s good to be reminded every once in a while that the grandfatherly man running Whit’s End is an actual grandfather. It’s been two years since Monty came over and now we finally get to meet his sister Jenny, the child prodigy. And she came at the perfect time considering Eugene Meltsner’s absence. Eugene’s last appearance was eleven episodes ago in Album 5. Jenny Whittaker-Dowd not only has some great vocabulary but she also brings along her violin, a step-up from Eugene’s ukulele. (For some reason the people of Odyssey aren’t always too keen to encourage Eugene in his ukulele playing.) Jenny plays so beautifully that people are amazed. Our introduction to Jenny as a well-mannered, mature and obedient daughter is a stark contrast to the episode A Member of the Family, in which her older brother Monty is introduced as an immature, disobedient, and angry boy. Monty of course isn’t quite like that anymore, but he still has some big issues. This episode chooses to focus on Jenny. One immediately wonders what lesson Jenny has left to learn if she is already so knowledgeable and mature. AIO adapts to these circumstances and tells its story in an original way.
Sandra Underwood is underhanded. She’s the obvious villain of the episode and you can hear it already in her first scene. When she hears that she can’t see Whit because he’s at home with his family, Sandra responds, “His family? I didn’t know he had one of those.” That could be something innocent a kid would say, but the annoyed tone Sandra uses reveals something off-putting about her. The connotation is that she is selfish and would rather have Mr. Whittaker at Whit’s End serving her than enjoying time with his family. And although she claims to be a talented musician, she doesn’t even appreciate music. When Connie asks her what kind of music she plays, Sandra responds, “Classical and junk like that.” Every line Sandra says seems designed to get on your nerves. Speaking about the violin solo, she says, “After all this waiting, I better get it.” As if simply waiting a long time for something means you automatically deserve it. Since there appear to be only two violinists in the orchestra, Sandra and Rebecca, I doubt Sandra was practicing very hard. She only had one person as her competition after all. Her getting the solo was a guarantee. That helps to explain why she becomes so frustrated when suddenly the rules of the game change and a brand new competitor comes out of nowhere to steal her part.
When you think of the Christmas season, things like joy, love, community, peace, and the birth of Jesus come to mind. But that isn’t always what people choose to focus on during that time of year. Adventures in Odyssey’s previous Christmas shows have played on the idea of getting back to the true meaning of Christmas and away from the various ways in which people tend to get sidetracked. In the episode Madge and Guy, Whit tells a comedic story about two people expressing selfless love as they give to each other their most precious possession without expecting anything in return. The Day After Christmas is a show about a selfish girl who learns the importance to helping those less fortunate than her. In the episode Peace on Earth the Barclay kids learn to take their focus off getting presents and Whit learns to take a break from running around town doing things in preparation for the holiday. And in The Reluctant Rival, we have a conflict over who gets to play the violin solo for a Christmas performance. Arguing about O Come, O Come Emmanuel is so obviously out-of-place that it’s almost laughable.
When Sandra comes to her mother and complains about how she was mistreated by the orchestra director Dan Bryant, her mother is shocked and immediately gets on the phone to call Mr. Bryant. This little interaction is very similar to the scene in The Tangled Web when Jeremy Forsythe tells his mom that he was robbed by a mysterious attacker and she immediately gets on the phone to tell Mr. Forsythe about it. And in the same way that The Tangled Web has an original ending, The Reluctant Rival manages to pull off something unexpected. You would expect this episode to end with Sandra and her mother being harshly confronted and put in their place. You would expect either Dan Bryant or Jana Whittaker to give them a Bible verse-filled lecture about what Christmas is supposed to be about and maybe even throw in a little reality check about Sandra’s true level of musical ability. But that isn’t how things go.
Before I get to the ending, let’s look briefly at another set of rivals in this episode. John Whittaker and his daughter Jana are always fighting. If you’ve heard A Member of the Family, you know their arguments can get pretty intense at times and uncomfortable to listen to. In this episode they’ve learned to get along better, but they still have their disagreements at times. Jana complains about Whit holding onto old memories and Whit insists that he doesn’t need to make changes to his house. Whit wants Jenny to play in the orchestra but Jana doesn’t think that’s a good idea. Then when the controversy arises, Jana heaps the blame on Whit. In this constant battle in which the adults don’t always have the clearest of heads, the kids have to figure things out on their own. Jenny never goes to Mr. Whittaker for advice about her dilemma. She decides what to do on her own. Similarly, no one tells Sandra that she needs to apologize to Jenny. Sandra simply does it in response to Jenny’s compassion.
When Jana saw her daughter do terribly in her performance on stage and absolutely fail her violin audition, Jana was probably in as much shock as Connie Kendall was when she read the part in The Tangled Web when Jeremy walks up on stage, accepts his undeserved award from the mayor, and then leaves without ever confessing his lies. That isn’t how it’s supposed to happen. We deserve to see justice happen. In Jeremy’s case, he passively allows his deception to go unchallenged and he spends the rest of his life regretting it. He’s the example of what not to do. But in Jenny’s case, she makes an amazing and selfless decision to give away the solo to her rival, Sandra. And in loving her enemy she turns her into a friend. This is a wonderful story. It exaggerates its villains slightly, but overall it does a great job. This episode gets 4 out of 5 stars.