We have a season full of trips in Whit's inventions coming up (or already gone, if you downloaded all the shows and listened right away). The Grand Design's episode titles and descriptions have been revealed, and since I haven't heard any of them yet I'm going to offer my predictions based on the information that's been released.
"The Perfect Church"
This is one of the few Bible stories AIO hasn't done (or at least hasn't done fully), so it's nice to get this one presented on AIO. We haven't had a Bible story dramatized on AIO since "The Imagination Station, Revisited," and although I don't greatly enjoy this genre of shows a Bible story is long overdue. I also like the title of this episode. :-)
I'm not sure what to expect from this episode--the whole idea of going back to see Whit as a child reminds me of "Thank You, God," but of course Whit's not telling a story here (which to me sounds like a much better idea for a show than everyone's favorite character Emily going back to see his childhood). Nathan Hoobler and Paul McCusker are both good writers, so that gives me hope that "Great Expectations" will be Odyssey in fine form.
"For Three Dollars More"
For our first Room of Consequences experience of the album (and this new period of AIO, if I'm correct) and third "inventions story" of The Grand Design we have an episode about tithing, which is a new theme for AIO to address (if I'm correct on that--with over 700 episodes to think back over, you'd think that tithing would've come up, but maybe not). It's a good topic to address and the ROC may be an adequate, if not altogether ingenious, way to present a story about tithing. I also look forward to seeing how the title ties into the story.
"The Bible Network"
"The Bible Network" (hereafter referred to as "TBN" ;-) ) sounds like Marshal Younger trying to replicate his success of "Hidden in My Heart," which is obviously not at all likely to happen but still an admirable pinnacle to aspire to. Even the theme of this show--reading your Bible--, is the same as "Hidden in My Heart." A crime drama called "BSI" should be the highlight of this episode, as long as there's enough humorous nods to procedural shows. Since "TBN" is a Kids Radio show it can also be obviously didactic without being annoying, because the whole point of these kind of shows is to illustrate a particular truth through the stories, and the quality of the stories is tied up in how well it gets across the intended message. This could be a highlight of the album or just get lost among the other episodes--it could easily go either way.
This is a Penny show, which pretty much says it all. Didn't we already have something like this in Album 54? It sounds a bit familiar. Expect a lot of "Penny humor" (which is slightly different from "Wooton humor," but not too much so). Clever title is in the show's favor, though.
"The Holy Hoopster"
A silly name for an episode that sounds like a Younger slice-of-life episode (which he admittedly can pull off quite well, sometimes). I'm indifferent to Ryan's character and I don't usually go for sports stories, so this is going to have to be quite entertaining for me to enjoy it.
"The Lost Riddle"
Matthew and Emily look into another one of their mysteries, which usually turn out to be very uninteresting. For this episode to succeed for me it'll need to have some seriousness to it, and a decades-old mystery may help provide that gravitas that is usually missing from their boring investigations.
I'm tired of this Groundhog Day storyline. Haven't we seen this enough in popular entertainment? Even AIO has done the Bill Murray movie before, in the (thankfully only 10-minute long) "The Eternal Birthday" (which took place in the ROC as well, by the way). Possibly having two characters (Jay and Priscilla) experience the same thing over and over again might help this feel fresher than it might otherwise, but I have my doubts. Where this episode will succeed or fail for most listeners will be how humorous the show turns out being. That's pretty much always the case with the Groundhog Day cliché--if you're not laughing then the episode's not working--, and the inclusion of Jay will definitely add comedy to the episode. I'm not that much of a fan of Jay though, so my feelings for "Groundhog Jay" will probably pale in comparison to most AIO fans.
I'm looking forward to this episode the most of all the ones coming up this season. It has the potential to be full of serious drama, with some light-hearted touches. Poor dialog or a pointless storyline (à la "Something Old, Something New"), particularly too much silly humor with characters like Wooton or Penny, may let the show down. Will it also possibly address Connie's 30-album-old crush on Jason? I doubt it, but we can only hope that this episode does a lot of addressing and leaves the "fluff" to other episodes in this album.
"Push the Red Button"
This is the live show, from what I hear abbreviated to fit into the designated time slot for AIO. Considering that by all accounts this is something of a silly episode I don't really like the fact that this closes off the season and I don't expect to like this episode a lot, but at least they're not expecting listeners to part with $15 for a copy of the live show like they did last time! I expect this to be an "event episode," but one that makes actual little impression on me.
I think by the end of this album I'll be quite machined-out. The IS and ROC are best used occasionally, and having around five episodes (three with the IS and two with the ROC) featuring these inventions will probably be too much, especially since recently taking trips in Whit's inventions has become a somewhat rare occurrence in comparison with when these inventions were newer. Isn't it just a bit irritating to go through those routines again--"Push the red button," "woah woah woah!," "Hey, where am I?," etc.? All this is, or at least has the potential to be, too predictable a formula, not taking advantage of every available second for engaging audio drama. But it looks like this season has some nice variety in it, while avoiding big epic episodes like we got last season, and I like that. I want my second-favorite small town (after Coleraine, of course) to feel like a small-town, with real characters and interesting events. Are these waiting for me in The Grand Design? They just might be.