Friday, September 28, 2012

The Secrets of Isis Episode 2: "Spots of the Leopard"

Episode two?  But we just watched episode four.  Yes, this one is out of order.  Wait!  YOU'RE OUT OF ORDER!  YOU'RE OUT OF ORDER!  THE WHOLE BLOG IS OUT OF ORDER!  THEY'RE OUT OF ORDER!

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Al Pacino.  On with the review.

Can Isis help restore a girl's faith in her ex-con father when he's the main suspect in a crime spree?  That's what we're here to find out as we discuss the second episode of Isis, "Spots of the Leopard," which aired September 13, 1975.  Jenny Nelson and her dad Chuck have to fend for themselves because Mom's out of town.  Chuck recently got out of prison and when someone starts using his M.O. (that's crime talk for modus operandi, or "how the heck it's done") to steal industrial diamonds, and his alibi proves bogus, even Jenny suspects her dad's gone back to his thieving ways.  Cindy Lee tries to get her to discuss it with Ms. Thomas, who apparently has the answer to everything, at least according to Cindy.

The girl's reluctant, then her father takes her on a spur of the moment camping trip.  This does nothing to soothe her, especially when she sees his wallet stuffed with money.  Off to the woods again.  People are always going into the woods in this show.  Was Henry David Thoreau on the writing staff?  Only Jenny doesn't go there because she wants to live deliberately; twitchy because he's under scrutiny from the insurance investigator who sent him to the big house once before, her father gives her little choice, and she's not happy about it or him.  To make matters worse, she gets her foot caught under a fake log which conveniently rolls down a hill onto her ankle just when Isis flies in to talk to her.

Jenny is played by Debralee Scott, who was the 1970s version of the great Clea DuVall.  Like DuVall, Scott was one of those everywhere faces in the 70s and 80s, one of those actors you sort of recognize because they turn up when you least expect them and always seem to do solid work.  She seemed to specialize in baby sisters, though.  Scott played Louise Lasser's little sister on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (was there some kind of special casting relationship between that show and Isis, or were the Hartman actors simply up for every part in town at one point?), Rosalie "Hotsy" Totsy in a few episodes of Welcome Back, Kotter, then another younger sister to Donna Pescow on Angie.  After with Kotter, I probably remember her most from Angie, having been a major fan of that show as a kid for reasons my adult self cannot fathom.  She even had parts in a couple of those Police Academy movies.  Her own older sister produced for Robert Altman, by the way.

Sadly, while doing some background research on this episode, I discovered Scott passed away in 2005, followed shortly by her sister.  It's a strange story and upsets me to no end.

You won't get any complaints about Scott's performance here, even if she has to act opposite a papier-mache log, which weighs a couple of pounds at least, and pretend it has her foot pinned.  That set up is pretty contrived and silly, but the rest of the show is fairly solid.  I love the casual opening scene where Jenny teases her dad about buying too much at the supermarket.  Veteran character actor Lou Frizzell looks nothing like Scott (maybe she's adopted?) but because they're consummate pros, they create a believable father-daughter chemistry.  Due to the plot machinations that require him to be shifty and suspicious when being forthright would have solved his problems within the first five minutes, father Chuck comes across as a bit of a bonehead, though.

Thanks to Roger Ebert's Law of the Conservation of Characters the true culprit fools no one.  Even Chuck figures him out, but then he stupidly takes things a step too far when he rashly attempts to crimebust on his own and nearly pays for it with both his freedom and his daughter's respect.  Which is the real crook's plan all along.  Pin it on the obvious guy, then...  Well, after that it's not exactly clear how he plans to make himself wealthy with the diamonds, which will still have to be accounted for.

One thing you'll notice about Isis is the stories aren't really about Isis, or Rick Mason, and only rarely about Cindy Lee.  They're about the guest stars.  It's a formula pioneered by shows like Bonanza and The Fugitive.  The lead characters remain in stasis because they have to maintain the show's premise week after week.  And since all fiction involves conflict and change-- I mean character growth, not Ms. Thomas into Isis-- all the lessons have to be learned by various students and/or their families and we never see them again.  Ms. Thomas remains cool and collected, Rick Mason jovially dedicated and Cindy Lee enthusiastic about her studies and pro-Andrea Thomas.  Like the Cartwrights, they are transformative agents, popping into the story here and there to help things along.  Any personal growth they experience happens long term and off-screen.  But essentially, not at all.

But I'm troubled.  There's a little matter that really bothers me.  Chuck Nelson grills up some burgers for the gang, then goes off to confront the burglar.  In the meantime, there's a police stake out and people driving (or flying on zephyr winds) from location to location.  This is before anyone actually attempts to eat a burger.  So my question is, how long were those hamburgers lying around in the sun?

And yet they must be safe to eat because Ms. Thomas and Mr. Mason would never--  Oh, that's right!  Cindy, Jenny and Chuck settle in to eat, but the two teachers order theirs to go.  Probably to dump the contaminated meat patties in a wastebasket somewhere.  Their excuse is they have to paint Thomas's apartment.  Now there may or may not have been a little romance between them, or perhaps they maintained their professional relationship all along.  But asking someone to help paint your apartment is a pretty big step in a relationship of any kind.

Because I've been trained to by so many subsequent TV shows, I keep looking for signs of sexual tension or flirtation between Thomas and Mason, but these fine teachers remain merely colleagues no matter how much time they spend together investigating UFOs, looking for Cindy Lee or discussing crime waves.  The DC comic tries desperately to pair them up, but in this day of "shippers" and fan fiction pairings of every imaginable combination, it's kind of refreshing to think both Ms. Thomas and Mr. Mason date outside the show's onscreen cast in between episodes and just keep their private lives largely to themselves when they're on the job, or the case.  Every male-female duo doesn't have to be David and Maddy or Lois and Clark or Mulder and Scully or Booth and Bones, for Isis's sake.

Let's all give Cindy a hand for being nonjudgemental.  You can imagine the pressures faced by a teen who has to show up every day when everyone knows her father's a jailbird.  Kids can be cruel about things so seemingly inconsequential as a pimple or pooping your pants on a long bus ride during a field trip because you're too embarrassed to tell a teacher you're in gastric distress, so you can imagine how having a prison parent affects Jenny's social life.  And yet there's the popular and peppy Cindy Lee making it a point to sit with Jenny at lunch.  A true friend!

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